Washington State University decided to explore building its own medical school because the University of Washington wasn’t moving fast enough to expand its medical program, WSU President Elson Floyd said Thursday.
In a meeting before The Seattle Times editorial board, Floyd said the state has an urgent need to graduate more doctors and encourage them to practice primary medicine in rural areas — particularly on the east side of the state. A WSU-run medical school, located in Spokane, could make that happen.
“How much longer do we need to wait” for the UW to expand, asked Floyd, noting that hundreds of Washington students are turned away from the UW program because it doesn’t have enough room. “There’s an urgency — other states are outpacing the state of Washington.”
But UW officials say the university is already on track to grow its medical-school program in Spokane, which it runs jointly with WSU. If it gets money from the Legislature next year to double the number studying there, Spokane will eventually have a medical program with about 320 students, said Margaret Shepherd, director of state relations for the UW.
“We are effectively proposing a four-year medical school in Spokane, with all of the benefits and none of the added administrative costs,” she said. The expansion would cost $1 million the first year and eventually require about $6 million of additional annual funding.
The UW has operated the sole public medical-school program in a five-state region for decades, bringing students here from Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho to study with Washington students in Seattle. The program is called WWAMI — an acronym formed by the first letter of the five states. Out-of-state medical students spend some of their time studying at the UW, then return to their home states to finish their training.
(Washington also has a private, nonprofit osteopathic medical school in Yakima, Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences.)
In Spokane, the UW has been working in partnership with WSU to expand the WWAMI program so that a class of 40 Eastern Washington students can do all of their medical training in Spokane. The number of students whose training takes place entirely in Spokane would grow to 80 students per year if a legislative request is approved next year, Shepherd said.
Medical school takes four years to complete, so if the request was approved, 320 students would eventually do all of their training in Spokane.
Earlier this year, WSU commissioned a privately funded study to see whether it made sense for WSU to create its own medical school. The report is due at the end of June.
Floyd said three factors were driving the need for more doctors in Eastern Washington: the Affordable Care Act, the aging population and the retirement of many primary-care doctors. “Can one medical school meet all of those needs?” he asked.
The UW, meanwhile, has created a task force to examine the future of WWAMI. It is headed by former Gov. Dan Evans and has met once, in Spokane last week. It will meet in Seattle in June.
Ken Roberts, who runs the WSU medical program, said if WSU created its own full-fledged medical school, it could accept its first class of students as early as 2017. The university would need money from the Legislature and would need to become accredited to make that happen.
Although Floyd says the UW hasn’t pushed aggressively enough to expand medical training in Spokane, Shepherd said the UW couldn’t expand during the recession because there was no money to do it. And in the 1980s and 1990s, there was predicted to be a glut of doctors.
Floyd said he is urging all sides not to rush to a judgment until WSU’s feasibility study is completed. “Let’s remain neutral on this until we have all the facts,” he said.