Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Guest opinion: Medical school debate misses bigger picture

Steve Stevens

The Spokane medical school debate is peaking as Washington State University has successfully received the Legislature’s support, pending Gov. Jay Inslee’s signing of the bill, to change a 1917 law that would give WSU the authority to create its own independently accredited medical school on the WSU Health Sciences Spokane campus.

Simultaneously, the University of Washington School of Medicine is asking the Legislature that the Spokane-based, four-year WWAMI medical school program, which teaches students from Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho, be expanded without negatively impacting the creation of WSU’s new medical school. The debate about how medical education should be delivered in the state misses the big-picture opportunity for our region.

That opportunity is the advancement of a comprehensive vision for the growth of medical education, associated health and bioscience research, the spinoff of businesses from that research, and improved quality health care access in our community. As a top priority for Greater Spokane Incorporated, this vision – with the capacity for being the single-largest economic development driver for our region – has been over a decade in the making. In large part, this is because it’s built on one of the greater Spokane region’s largest industries – health care – which currently generates more than $6 billion in economic impact. Realizing the full build-out of this transformational vision has the potential to generate sustained economic impact of more than $1.7 billion annually, and the creation of more than 9,000 new jobs in the region by 2030.

The foundation of this vision is medical education, both four-year medical education and graduate medical education (residencies). The debate has centered on our state’s critical physician shortage, particularly the growing shortage of primary care physicians in the rural and underserved areas of Eastern Washington. The statistics shared by each university are compelling, and we applaud the Legislature for recognizing this challenge.

Now, it’s time for the Legislature to support and fund each university’s expansion plans. The combined and complementary approaches in Spokane of the nationally recognized WWAMI four-year medical school and the creation of a new WSU medical school as part of WSU’s health sciences-focused Spokane campus are the best long-term solutions to addressing this challenge in the region and the state.

As a community, the larger opportunity is the potential to create a foundation for a vibrant and growing health care and bioscience industry economy around a pair of medical schools with strong university research programs. Whether the research is translated into promising medical advances or commercialized to grow the economy, the people of our region will benefit through better health care and better jobs.

When I assumed this position eight months ago, I learned about Spokane’s unique ability to unify its energies toward a single vision. Our assets as a community are deep, and the transformation possible with this vision has already begun: WSU has established Spokane as its health sciences campus with millions in investment; strong allied health programs have been built around our regional universities and community colleges; and a growing economic development infrastructure exists to commercialize promising research. All create a solid foundation from which a world-class medical education, research and bioscience industry can flourish. But all of this becomes lost in the debate about these two medical schools in Spokane.

Achieving this vision for our community demands cooperation and partnership between our universities working in tandem with local community and health care leaders. Anything short of that presents a risk of individual stakeholders veering from a coordinated, efficient and effective plan. Rather than looking at this issue as if it were a zero-sum game, our business and elected leaders should harness their collective energy to fly two flags that signify one unified voice – the health of our economy, of our community, and of our state, depends on it.

Steve Stevens is the president and chief executive officer of Greater Spokane Incorporated, the greater-Spokane region’s chamber of commerce and economic development organization. GSI is charged with the mission of growing jobs and business investment through robust programs in economic and workforce development, public policy and small business.