The need for more doctors, especially primary care physicians, and to have more of them living and working outside the state’s major urban areas, is clear.
What has been debated recently was whether it was best to have the University of Washington’s medical school, which since 1917 has had the exclusive charter under state law, to expand its enrollment or for Washington State University to be allowed to launch its own medical school in Spokane.
In Washington, 18 of our 39 counties are underserved, with about one doctor for every 1,000 residents. King County, on the other hand, has almost half of all doctors in the state serving about 29 percent of the state’s population. Currently, the University of Washington Medical School enrolls 120 students each year. Another 120 are enrolled each year in a separate program that serves students from five Western states.
There are advantages to the approach WSU would use that warrant support for two separate medical schools in the state, rather than one larger one.
WSU plans to use a model employed in Michigan and Florida, called community-based medical education. Following a medical student’s first two years at WSU’s Spokane campus, third- and fourth-year students would be sent throughout the state to communities — and Everett, its University Center and facilities such as Providence and the Everett Clinic are likely candidates — to continue their educations at colleges, hospitals and clinics partnering with the university.
By placing medical students throughout the state, says WSU Spokane Chancellor Lisa Brown, the expectation is that those students are more likely to remain in the state and in those communities as they enter residencies and beyond, and are more likely to stay in the primary care fields of medicine where the need is greatest. Florida, Brown gave as an example, has seen a retention rate of 70 percent because of its community-based program.
Bob Drewel, chancellor for WSU’s Everett University Center, is eager to see the program brought here, because of what it could mean for increased access to medical care, particularly in the county’s more rural areas, as well as opening up more medical school slots for Snohomish County students.
While tuition at WSU’s medical school isn’t likely to be less expensive than that of UW, its students would have an advantage of a more affordable cost of living in Spokane and in the other communities in which it is based.
Along with the authorization from the Legislature, WSU also is seeking $2.5 million in seed money in the state budget, money it would use to launch a national accreditation review of its facilities, faculty and curriculum as well as hiring a founding medical school dean.
WSU hopes to start with a class of 40 students by fall 2017, increasing to a class of 120 by 2021. WSU, with support from public and private sources, as well as tuition, would be able to meet that deadline, Brown said. Capital spending for facilities would be limited, she said, because most of the needed facilities already are in place at its various campuses.
The Legislature should allow WSU to proceed and should provide the initial funding it seeks. And early conversations should begin with communities, hospitals, clinics and private practices that could become part of its program.