On Friday, 60 first-year medical students got their white coats from the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine in a ceremony at the Fox Theater. The audience was filled with proud parents as well as new faculty and administrators who have moved to Spokane from around the country to launch a new medical school. Also in attendance were community members to witness the realization of a longtime dream.
It was a moment that ranked up there with the opening ceremony of Expo ’74. And it was a moment that says a lot about Spokane as a community.
Twenty years ago this moment seemed unattainable. Leaders in business, education and health care had talked about expanding medical education in Spokane but it seemed like a long shot. For many years, the University of Washington had been sending its regional medical education program (WWAMI) students to Pullman for their first year of classes, but the program’s center of gravity was in Seattle.
Washington State University and Gonzaga University had nursing programs in Spokane, and WSU Spokane had research, but the community lacked resources to attract something larger.
But we kept talking about it and dreaming about what a medical school could do for Spokane. Greater Spokane Incorporated brought business, education and health care leaders together to work on it. Scott Morris, CEO of Avista, and Elson S. Floyd, WSU’s president at the time, co-chaired a working group. Volunteers raised money, commissioned studies and planned. They created a bold vision of Spokane as a center of medical education. They knew this would bring research and well-paying jobs to our community as it has done for cities around the country. They knew it would lift our economy, help other small businesses and enhance Spokane’s great reputation as a center of health care excellence. They also knew it was critical to solving Washington state’s physician shortage.
When the vision stalled, a leader who was both a visionary and a risk taker stepped in. Elson S. Floyd doubled down on Spokane. He committed to moving the College of Pharmacy from Pullman to Spokane and made WSU’s Spokane campus the health sciences campus for the entire university. He said WSU would start an independently accredited medical school in Spokane. He sought to change a piece of legislation needed to allow WSU to proceed.
Not everyone was happy. There were concerns, disagreements, debates. But Floyd pushed forward and others joined him. Leaders such as WSU Health Sciences Spokane Chancellor Lisa Brown, the former Senate majority leader who had helped support Spokane in the Legislature for many years. Sen. Michael Baumgartner and Rep. Marcus Riccelli reached across the aisle and co-sponsored the bill. Legislators from all over the state supported the effort and ensured its funding in the state’s operating budget.
The business community made trips to Olympia, talked with legislators, raised funds and helped carry the torch. Doctors and nurses who understood the power of expanded medical education joined the cause. Dr. John Tomkowiak was chosen as founding dean and quickly assembled a team of experts.
Today we celebrate these collective efforts. Today, the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine is welcoming a class of Washington young adults, aspiring physicians, who hail from communities all around our state. Several come from underserved rural towns where doctors are needed most.
The University of Washington has also expanded its WWAMI program in Spokane, in collaboration with Gonzaga University, and will have 60 students per class who complete their undergraduate medical education in Spokane. This means Spokane-based medical students will total 480 between the two universities, once all four years of classes are populated.
This is remarkable. But it didn’t happen by accident.
Today is a moment to reflect on what makes Spokane a special community. It’s our ability to dream big. It’s our knack for bringing people together. It’s our tenacity and our grit. So let’s take a moment to enjoy a truly big achievement. And then let’s get back to work.
What’s next, Spokane?
Rich Hadley and Marty Dickinson are co-chairs of Leaders for a WSU Medical School.
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