Our Voice: UW's plans for expanded medical school is decades late

Key players at Washington State University and the University of Washington appear ready to stand firm and prep themselves for a battle.

Which would be great if we were talking football.

But we aren't.

Instead, the two universities are both looking at expanding medical school services in Eastern Washington and it likely will come down to a legislative showdown for money between the two programs.

State officials will have to look beyond any possible school loyalty to make their decision and judge the issue on merits rather than politics.

What is especially irksome is that for almost 70 years, UW has controlled the only public medical school in the state and has largely ignored the needs of Eastern Washington.

Only now, when WSU has considered starting its own medical school, did the Dawgs decide to protect their turf.

Private donors provided $250,000 for the WSU feasibility study, which said the university is in a good position to start its own medical school. Based on that report, the WSU regents voted to pursue accreditation for a medical school based at its Spokane campus, which is already home to the university's pharmacy and nursing programs.

UW officials are balking at the idea and want to expand their current program. They told the Herald editorial board it would be "odd" to have two public universities with medical schools in the same state.

But it isn't odd. Washington has a population of about 6.6 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, while Virginia, for example, has 7.7 million. It supports three public medical schools.

The UW program is supposed to also serve medical students from Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Alaska. The WWAMI Medical Education program was created in the early 1980s and offers a set number of slots for each state's aspiring doctors, with Washington assigned 120 positions.

WSU has been a partner in WWAMI for many years, but WSU officials say UW has not increased the number of openings in decades and there is a doctor shortage in the state outside the Seattle metropolitan area. There also is a high number of students who leave the region to study medicine because they can't get into the UW program.

WSU President Elson Floyd said he believes "there's enough air in the room" for WSU to meet those needs.

UW officials have said the numbers WSU is touting from its study are inaccurate. They also said the WWAMI program can be expanded more quickly than starting up a new medical school and that it is actively working to create more doctors in rural areas of Eastern Washington.

It still will take a while, however, as they said they plan to add 40 more in-state openings by 2020. Even then, it may not be enough.

The WSU study found that other states with a population similar to Washington typically offer 400 slots in medical schools per year. Last year, 340 people from Washington were admitted to medical schools, with two-thirds of them going out of state because of UW's limit of 120 for Washington students.

We wouldn't be surprised if the numbers from both camps are off, but the need for more doctors is not. The need for more Washington students to have a chance to attend medical school in their home state is also desperately needed.

UW has arrived at the game late and now wants to play. It's hard to cheer for a team that hasn't paid much attention to the needs of Eastern Washington until now.