WSU med school: No case yet

For years, a higher-ed Cold War pitted the University of Washington against Washington State University. It was a fun, innocuous rivalry, at least in the pre-austerity era.

After decades of turf battles, the parochial gave way to the greater good. It had to. Since the 2005-07 biennium, tuition at Washington’s research universities soared 118 percent, with a corresponding decline in state funding of 36 percent (read: less for more).

Thankfully, there’s strength in unity. Farsighted leadership from the presidents of Washington’s six public baccalaureate degree-granting college and universities reversed the decline. The WSU-UW detente translated into a tuition freeze and a stop-the-bleeding higher-ed biennial budget.

WSU President Elson Floyd, a charismatic and visionary leader, deserves particular credit. Today, Floyd is spending his political capital promoting a WSU medical school in Spokane. The mission is admirable, to expand the production of physicians in Washington, especially in rural and underserved areas. And it’s an idea that will have political traction in Olympia, where former Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, a med-school booster, has meaningful leverage.

But how best to deploy the state’s resources? In terms of costs and quality, the prudent option still is the UW’s WWAMI program in Spokane, which offers medical education for Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho.

As recently as last year, Brown, now the chancellor of WSU/Spokane, penned an op-ed with Dr. Paul Ramsey, the dean of the UW School of Medicine, celebrating the success of WWAMI.

“By offering outstanding, efficient and cost-effective medical education, the world-renowned program has expanded the number of physicians and other health professionals for our multi-state region,” they write in a Spokane Spokesman Review commentary. “In addition, WWAMI has focused on the specific needs of Northwest communities, including a major focus on primary care.”

Indeed, the UW Medical School ranks first in the nation for primary care. Do states with more medical students have more physicians per capita? No (consider Michigan, Illinois and California, with more med schools, but fewer active primary care physicians per capita than Washington).

No higher-ed institution in Washington is as nimble and innovative as the state’s land-grant university. WSU does many things extremely well. (The creation of WSU North Puget Sound at Everett is a case in point). Cougar pride notwithstanding, a WSU med school doesn’t pencil out.

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