Washington’s in sore need of a second medical school

About a year ago, at age 57, I had a small stroke.

While I recovered quickly with no lasting effects, it was great to know that, living in the metro Puget Sound area, I was surrounded by some of the best doctors and medical technologies available anywhere in the world.

The scary thing is that this is not the case in most of the state of Washington.

If you live outside the urban Puget Sound region, access to basic health care is on life support. My sister who works in Selah and my many cousins who live in places like Oroville and Montesano do not have anywhere near the access to medical care that I enjoy.

And the problem is getting worse. The state’s population growth is predicted to continue to double the U.S. rate. More than one quarter of Washington’s 18,000-plus active physicians are currently older than 60. These two trends mean that our state needs to add about 750 new doctors every year just to stay even with the current level of care, to say nothing of adding doctors to our underserved rural communities.

Significantly increasing medical school enrollment in our state is an important part of the solution. It is also our state’s challenge.

Washington is the 13th most populous state in the union but ranks last in medical education seats per capita. The average number of medical schools in the 12 states more populous than Washington is six. Eleven states with less population have more than one medical school. Washington has only one public medical school and shares it with Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho.

The University of Washington’s School of Medicine is excellent. WWAMI – an acronym for the five states served – has been a quality distance medical education program for more than 40 years. But the fact is that UW’s medical school, while the nation’s eighth largest, only graduates 120 new doctors for our state each year.

Every year, hundreds of highly qualified students from our state are turned away from in-state medical education programs. They leave Washington to pursue their training elsewhere, where many of them remain once they graduate and begin health care careers.

Incremental expansion of the WWAMI program is welcome, but it is a Band-Aid for a problem that will become more critical as baby boomers age and primary care providers retire in increasing numbers. A third approach is also a practical one – the creation of a second fully-accredited state medical school at Washington State University.

WSU is not a novice in this arena. The state’s land-grant university brings more than 40 years of experience in medical education and already has significant assets in place to support a medical school, including faculty expertise and cutting-edge facilities on a robust health sciences campus that is already home to excellent nursing, pharmacy and medical sciences programs.

WSU and Eastern Washington University already offer more than 25 programs in the health sciences on the University District Campus in downtown Spokane. WSU has strong partnerships with hospitals and clinics throughout the greater Spokane region – the largest medical hub between Seattle, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City.

WSU’s plan utilizes a proven and effective medical school model – Community-Based Medical Education – to partner with existing hospitals and clinics in Spokane and throughout the state. This model has been successful in many other states – including Florida, Michigan and California –where students receive real-life practical experience focused on primary care and the needs of underserved populations and communities.

Importantly, because this model doesn’t require expensive construction of a university hospital, clinics and other facilities found at a traditional academic medical center, it is economical and can be scaled up rapidly to meet our state’s changing needs.

This issue is not a battle between two collegiate rivals. It is an opportunity for both universities to be part of a cost-effective, multifaceted solution to improve access to quality health care for everyone who calls Washington home.

University Place native Mikal Thomsen is co-founder and partner at Trilogy Equity Partners in Bellevue and an owner of the Tacoma Rainiers. A 1979 graduate of WSU, he wrote this on behalf of the university.