WSU, UW wage PR war over medical school

  • By Sharon Salyer and Jerry Cornfield Herald Writers
  • Monday, September 15, 2014 7:59pm
  • Local NewsLocal news

EVERETT — The more Washington State University officials talk of the need for a medical school east of the Cascades, the more University of Washington leaders say it’s a bad idea.

On Monday, three days after WSU regents approved the undertaking, Orin Smith, a UW regent, stepped into the fray. He sharply criticized a consultant’s study analyzing the need for a new medical school under WSU, saying it was “based upon faulty assumptions, omissions and erroneous data.”

WSU’s drive to open a new medical school in Spokane is rapidly morphing into a major public relations battle with its cross-state rival in Seattle. UW established the state’s only public medical school in 1946. Today, UW runs a five-state medical-school program in which WSU participates.

Pullman-based WSU maintains that despite that regional program, there is a physician shortage in Washington that will only grow as baby-boomer doctors, particularly primary care physicians, begin to retire and the state’s population continues to grow.

The shortage is particularly acute outside Washington’s metropolitan areas. Seventeen counties have fewer than 10 doctors per 10,000 people, according to the resolution backing a new medical school approved by WSU’s board of regents.

WSU has launched a public-relations blitz to build a case, scheduling meetings in communities across the state. On Monday, university leaders and the consultants who prepared the report for regents visited The Herald to make that pitch.

Lisa Brown, a WSU chancellor and a former state Senate Majority leader, said that the idea of establishing a medical school in Spokane dates to 1974. The university has since made a series of investments in health science programs at a campus in Spokane, she said.

The cost of establishing a new medical school will not require a capital investment because WSU has a new $80 million biomedical and health sciences building in Spokane. That could eventually be home to 120 medical students per entering class, she said.

“The interesting thing about this model is I think a lot of people were expecting this huge cost,” Brown said.

The initial cost of preparing to open the school would be relatively small — about $2.5 million over the next two years to begin the process of accreditation and cover associated costs. By the time the school is fully operational, in about 10 years, the state would need to contribute $24 million a year for operating costs, Brown said.

So making the case for the new medical school is likely to face some major political challenges. Ultimately, for WSU to proceed, it will need lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee to tweak state laws and provide funding.

The request comes at a time when the Legislature is facing daunting budget issues, including orders by the state Supreme Court to increase funding for public schools and to find money to house mentally ill patients.

And many areas of the state are in need of major transportation improvements, which the Legislature so far has been unable to fund.

Nevertheless, “We don’t think it is such a complicated ask,” said Michael Worthy, chairman of the WSU Board of Regents.

Finding enough health care workers to treat sick patients requires more than just getting more students into medical schools, however. A big problem facing future doctors is finding a residency after they graduate from medical school.

That’s where doctors get additional training under the supervision of other doctors, with the resident’s salary paid by the federal government.

There’s a national shortage of residency openings. In March, the Association of American Medical Colleges said that several hundred medical students in the U.S. were unable to be matched with a residency.

Brown and other backers of a WSU medical school say that the shortage of doctors is a problem that is not going to go away. “So let’s get started on a solution to this problem,” she said. “Ultimately, we believe it is a solution that both the UW and WSU could contribute to. It is not an either or,” she said.

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or

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