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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Feasibility study endorses medical school

Washington needs a second medical school, and Washington State University is poised to take on the task at a “modest” cost to the state, according to a WSU-funded feasibility study released Thursday.

Washington’s need for more doctors – particularly in Eastern Washington – and to place more medical students is high, the consultants said. WSU’s Spokane campus already has the health sciences infrastructure in place that would allow the school to deliver an accredited medical education program as soon as fall 2017.

The results came as no surprise to the WSU officials who commissioned the study in February while announcing plans to create an independent medical school. WSU has since been engaged in a high-profile battle with UW officials about control of a medical school in Spokane. MGT of America, a Florida consulting company, presented its results Thursday to WSU’s Board of Regents, who called it eye-opening but questioned the estimated cost.

The costs would be $1 million to $3 million annually for the first five years while the proposed medical school is being developed. The estimated cost to educate 480 students by 2024-25 would be an additional $24 million in state funding for a total of $47 million annually, the study says.

“We think this is a reasonable cost,” said Ray Thompson of MGT. Because of assets in place and WSU’s expertise in health sciences, “you are light years ahead of other universities,” he told WSU regents on Thursday.

Costs will also be lower because WSU plans to go with a community-based medical school model, partnering with local hospitals and clinics rather than running an academic hospital. The approach is becoming increasingly common across the nation, especially in rural areas where the need to add physicians is greater, the study says.

Nearly half of Washington’s physicians are in King County, where 29 percent of the population resides; 18 of 39 counties in the state have 10 or fewer physicians per 10,000 population, and many of these are in Eastern Washington. Meanwhile, King County has more than 40 per 10,000, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

Following the presentation on Thursday, WSU President Elson Floyd asked the regents to give him direction on the medical school. The university’s governing body is expected to make a decision today about whether WSU should move forward to start establishing a medical school.

The big question is how state legislators will react to the consultant’s study and whether they will fund a new medical school.

“My sense is the legislators will want to respond to the need,” said WSU Spokane Chancellor Lisa Brown. “There are always competing needs on the table,” she added, but this need is established and WSU is committed to addressing the problem. Brown served in the Washington Legislature for 20 years. “I think the study will be of great interest to legislators in terms of cost and timelines,” she said.

Officials at the University of Washington said they were disappointed by WSU’s desire to “pursue a separate, independent” medical school.

“At a time when fully funding basic education and addressing our mental health crisis loom large, we believe creating a second, $47 million medical school raises many questions and concerns about the highest and best use of limited resources,” said UW Regent Orin Smith in a prepared statement.

UW has offered medical education in conjunction with WSU for 40 years through the multistate WWAMI (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho) program. The Seattle-based university has pledged to increase the number of students being trained in Spokane in coming years.

“The UW remains committed to investing in and growing this partnership with the support of the Spokane community and the Washington state Legislature to support sustainable economic development for the region,” Smith said in his prepared statement.

WSU still is interested in partnering with UW, Brown said.

“We committed to doing so. We simply don’t believe it’s enough.” The study confirms that.

So far, most state politicians have shied away from taking sides, while acknowledging the need for more medical education in the state.

“I’m impressed with the feasibility study. I think it’s positive that the Legislature will have another viable way to medical education,” said state Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane. “When we make a decision, we will not consider it the Apple Cup of medical education. It’s about realizing the economic benefit to the state and Spokane.”

The bottom line, he added, is Washington needs more doctors.

State Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, agrees.

“Our goal is to create more doctors and to generate economic activity from a medical school,” Billig said. “We can do that with a WWAMI expansion or WSU getting a medical school, or doing both. In either case, Spokane and Washington win.”

He added that while some have expressed concerns over the turf war that’s ensued between UW and WSU over medical education, the conversation it sparked “about expanding medical education has been really healthy.”

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