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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Record number of UW med students ready to start at Gonzaga

Whitworth student Alex Hoffmann will  enter the University of Washington  medical school in Spokane, which is partnering with Gonzaga University this fall for the first time. The incoming class will be 60 students, which is three times larger than the current class, and they’ll be using some remodeled facilities at GU as well as the WSU anatomy lab on the Riverpoint Campus. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Alex Hoffmann decided in middle school what he wanted to do when he grew up. He had researched anesthesia for a biology class, loved science and wanted to interact with people.

Those lines pointed to medicine, but he had to decide between getting a Ph.D. and doing research, or getting an M.D. and becoming a physician. A stint shadowing Spokane family physician Mike Stephens helped make up his mind.

“You see all types of problems, from newborn to geriatrics, in the same day,” said Hoffmann, who grew up in Mead and will graduate this month from Whitworth University. He’s not sure that will be his chosen specialty, but he’s considering its advantages.

“You can have personal relationships, sometimes with entire families,” he said.

Plus, the doctor he shadowed recently joined the faculty at the University of Washington School of Medicine, which has an international reputation for training family doctors. That’s where Hoffmann will be a member of the first class under the new joint agreement between UW and Gonzaga University.

This summer the number of first-year med students in the Spokane program climbs from 40 to 60, the largest incoming class ever.

Those students and the school’s expanding faculty will take over a renovated Schoenberg Center on the west end of the GU campus, with some classes in other Gonzaga buildings and the anatomy lab at the Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Sciences Building on the nearby Washington State University-Spokane campus.

That new class, and the new cooperative arrangement, is the latest chapter in efforts to expand medical school training in Spokane. The class will be part of the multistate medical education program operated by UW, which goes by the acronym WWAMI, for Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho.

Until last year, the WWAMI program in Spokane was a joint effort by UW and WSU. But after WSU regents decided in 2014 to seek authority to open a WSU medical school, UW began looking for a new partner. In February the Seattle-based university signed a four-year agreement with GU to host its growing number of students and will vacate most of the space it was using at WSU-Spokane.

The Legislature changed state law last year to allow WSU to operate a medical school and set aside $2.5 million for it to set up a program, hire faculty and seek accreditation for the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine. It’s on track to have its first class of students in 2017.

At the same time, the Legislature appropriated $3.6 million for fiscal 2016 for the 60 first-year students and 20 second-year students in WWAMI, and $5.4 million in 2017, when another class of 60 first-year students will start.

It also ordered a study on the cost of training medical school students in the two programs, and to determine whether state funds are subsidizing any of the partner states in the WWAMI program.

For the new crop of students, however, the back story isn’t as important as having more medical slots in Spokane.

Sharon Udher, another member of the incoming class, will graduate from GU this month and is excited to start med school on the same campus this summer. Her mother is a doctor in Spokane, and she’s watched her help patients through tough times.

“A bonus is I can do my training in a community I love – Spokane,” Udher was quoted as saying in a news release from UW announcing the new class.

Hoffmann, a national debate champion who graduates in three weeks with a degree in biology, is happy to be accepted into a program that’s close to home and will give him the best chance to spend his third and fourth years of medical training at facilities in and around Spokane, which is becoming a very competitive program.

Incoming students got a look recently at the new facilities, and Hoffmann said he was “blown away.”

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Alex Hoffmann’s last name.