It was a revolutionary concept in 1971 when the University of Washington School of Medicine pioneered the nation’s first collaborative medical school with the University of Alaska and Washington State University. The goal was to expand UW’s world-class medical school to train new doctors in hospitals and clinics located throughout the two states.
The concept was “way ahead of its time,” according to former state senator Lisa Brown from Spokane in an article she co-wrote last year. The cost-effective medical school is known today as WWAMI, an acronym for the five-state region it serves - Montana and Idaho joined in 1972 and Wyoming in 1996.
Despite WWAMI’s nationally recognized success, Brown is supporting WSU President Elson Floyd’s push to break away from a 43-year partnership in WWAMI and lobby the state Legislature to fund the creation of a separate medical school located in Spokane. Brown is chancellor of the WSU Spokane campus.
Floyd and Brown face an uphill battle to convince state legislators to find $150 million to start a new medical school at a time when they are already grappling with an unmet mandate for K-12 education funding and overdue transportation needs.
WWAMI has been rated No. 1 in the nation for primary care medical education for the past 22 years. It also ranks No. 1 in family medicine and rural medicine. And it achieves those results at about a third of the national average in cost per student.
The economic efficiency of WWAMI benefits its young graduates. WWAMI tuition costs about $50,000 less than medical schools in other states, so its new doctors’ education debt is well below the national average.
Proponents of a new medical school at WSU argue that WWAMI has been slow to expand. And given the growing number of new patients, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, the state will share in the nation’s shortage of primary care doctors.
Plus, they say, other states have multiple independent medical schools, and more medical students.
All of that is true, but more medical schools doesn’t automatically translate to more doctors. Washington state has more active physicians and primary care providers per capita than similar size states with more medical schools.
WWAMI’s model of training medical students in rural and underserved urban areas results in a higher return rate than the national average.
In Washington state, 55 percent of WWAMI students stay and practice here, better than the 39 percent national return rate for public medical schools. Every WWAMI state exceeds the national average.
Washington State University has commissioned a $250,000 feasibility study for a new medical school due later this summer. No doubt it will show a positive economic impact for Spokane. But is that a persuasive reason to spend the state’s limited tax dollars?
Wouldn’t it make more sense to invest in expanding the WWAMI enrollments, if and when the Legislature can fund them?
In Brown’s own words, WWAMI “is fully in line with today’s national focus on offering healthcare that is state-of-the-art, high-value and controls cost. In many ways, the WWAMI program is a model for changes needed in our healthcare system.”
We can’t argue with that.