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

This column reflects the opinion of the writer. Learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column.

Marcus Riccelli and John Tomkowiak: Legislature’s support of medical education sets a visionary course for better health care access in Washington

By Marcus Riccelli and John Tomkowiak

A loved one’s chances of surviving cancer or any other serious illness should not be determined by the ZIP code they live in. That is why we set out to build the WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine. Its mission is simple: increase access to medical education and health care, especially in rural and underserved populations, so you and your family can get the care you need.

The state Legislature made a bold declaration in its support of this goal by fully funding the College of Medicine’s request for $14.4 million. These funds provide the third and fourth years of instruction to the current two cohorts of medical students and allow for an additional 20 students in new cohorts starting this fall, raising the class size from 60 to 80 medical students.

Improved health care outcomes for our rural and underserved communities requires more physicians practicing in these challenging health care environments. From the beginning the WSU College of Medicine has been committed to selecting students who are most likely to remain in Washington and serve in these environments. Students are selected based on life experiences, personal backgrounds, adversities overcome, leadership roles and communication skills; factors like test scores and GPA are used only to screen for academic qualification.

It’s clear this approach is producing a new generation of medical students. In its first two cohorts, the WSU College of Medicine boasts more than 25 percent first-generation college students, 38 percent from low-income backgrounds, 58 percent women, and 44 percent ages 25 or older – all well above the national averages for medical schools. And, true to its commitment to the state, 100 percent of students are from Washington.

While so many Spokane community leaders have paved the way for success, this effort is much bigger than Spokane and will reach every corner of our state. Under its innovative “community-based” model, the program trains students in hospitals and clinics around the state. The more students get direct experience in these health care settings and communities, the greater chance they will practice where we need them most. Although King County has just 29 percent of the state’s population, it is home to more than 40 percent our state’s doctors. We need more doctors in the rest of the state.

To date, the College of Medicine has signed 91 agreements with clinical partners centered in urban areas including Spokane, Vancouver, Everett, the Tri-Cities, Seattle and Tacoma. Importantly, one in five of these agreements are with rural clinical partners in all corners of the state from Forks to Goldendale, from Grand Coulee to Longview, and include affiliations with the Spokane, Tulalip and Coeur d’Alene tribes.

Thanks to the support of the legislature, 20 more of Washington’s students each year will have the opportunity to pursue a medical education here in their home state. That means 20 more students gaining experience in the rural and underserved communities they intend to serve in professional practice. And, in a state where more than one-third of primary care doctors are 55 or older, it means 20 more students to help fill the health care gaps of an aging physician workforce.

At a time of many worthy investments requiring financial support in our rapidly growing state, we are grateful for a legislature that is as bold, audacious and visionary as the WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine in its support of medical education. Together, we remain committed to expanding access to quality and affordable care, improving outcomes, and solving problems in challenging health care environments for Washington today and for years to come.

Marcus Riccelli is a Washington state representative for the 3rd Legislative District. John Tomkowiak, MD, MOL, is a founding dean of the WSU Elson S. Floyd Collge of Medicine.