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Saturday, January 25, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

David Condon and Ben Stuckart: Time to come together for WSU Health Sciences

David Condon ,Ben Stuckart

The WSU Health Sciences campus is a place where Spokane’s past and future meet.

Once a rail yard, the campus is now the flagship of a statewide health sciences enterprise where more than 1,600 students study medicine, nursing and pharmacy. It’s the workplace for some 940 faculty and staff, and the colleges located there brought in $32.5 million in external research funding last year.

Together we built this, to address inequities in access to health care not just in Spokane but around the entire state. The problem is at its worst in underserved communities, rural and urban. And it’s now a crisis. We must come together again.

The WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine is asking the state to continue funding its longtime enrollment plan and add 20 students to its current 60-member incoming class, starting in August.

This isn’t just a Spokane issue. The funding for those 20 students means more doctors for the whole state. The model WSU is using is community-based.

WSU medical students in the first two classes are all from Washington, representing 59 communities in 20 counties.

After their second year, they’ll be going to community-based hospitals and clinics around the state to gain clinical experience. WSU has affiliations with 85 such partners and is signing new affiliation agreements with more every month.

This fall, we could see third-year WSU medical students learning in urban centers like Spokane, Vancouver, Everett and the Tri-Cities. They might be in Seattle or Tacoma, or in rural communities from Forks to Goldendale and from Grand Coulee to Longview. They could be in federally designated critical access hospitals or in tribal clinics.

Washington needs these doctors. The population is getting older, and so are the physicians working in the state. The median age of doctors statewide is 50, but in Ferry County the median is 62. In Garfield County it’s 63.

It’s no surprise that the physician shortage is most severe in rural areas and in urban regions with low-income or other underserved populations.

WSU’s admissions policies for its medical school are designed to attract students who might be inclined to practice in such challenging health care environments.

Students’ test scores and GPA are used only to screen for academic qualification. Unusually for a medical school, the admissions committee doesn’t see those numbers. Instead, the committee looks for life experiences, personal backgrounds and other intangibles – adversities overcome, leadership roles, communication skills and tenacity – that demonstrate public-service DNA.

This new kind of statewide medical school educates doctors from Washington, for Washington, and it calls Spokane home. As early supporters of WSU Health Sciences predicted, that’s also been a great thing for the Inland Northwest region economically.

In 2017 – only two years after the Legislature authorized the WSU College of Medicine – the average annual wage in Spokane County rose nearly 4 percent. Economists credited the influx of professionals to the region.

Health care and health sciences are expected to account for many of the new jobs coming to the area this year. The University District is full of people, with businesses announcing new locations there all the time.

WSU Health Sciences recently announced the formation of the Steve Gleason Institute for Neuroscience with other health care providers and community partners. The institute, which is projected to open in the second half of this year, will focus on “care and cure” for brain disease, potentially leading to breakthroughs in neuroscience medicine.

There’s real momentum in health sciences in Spokane. Let’s come together to keep that momentum going. Ask the state to give WSU the funding to complete its medical school enrollment plan.

David Condon is mayor of Spokane; Ben Stuckart is president of the Spokane City Council.

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