Wading through medical school politics reveals real issue

brownCommentary by Lisa Brown, WSU Spokane chancellor

SPOKANE, Wash. – It’s been called a turf war and the Apple Cup of medical education. We call it an emergency and a compelling state need.

Washington State University is poised to be part of the solution to the state’s longtime primary care physician need by starting a second public medical school.

We are prepared to double the number of students who are accepted to medical school and to recruit and educate students from the underserved communities that need them to come back as physicians to practice.

Established in health sciences

Our health sciences campus in Spokane, home to the WSU colleges of Medical Sciences, Nursing and Pharmacy, educates nearly 1,500 students a year. More than 80 percent of students on our campus are studying the health sciences. Our research portfolio is growing and has nearly doubled in the last few years.

With the recent move of the College of Pharmacy to Spokane from Pullman, we host three of WSU’s 12 colleges.

Combined with Spokane’s status as the premier health care center between Seattle and Minneapolis, the university’s Spokane campus is a logical host for a medical school. Most states (many smaller than Washington) have multiple public medical schools and many states have added medical schools in recent years.

Meanwhile, Washington ranks close to last in number of seats — at 120 — available for eligible in-state medical school applicants.

Community support

WSU’s commitment to Spokane and medical education has been significant, putting more than $200 million into building infrastructure on campus and partnering with the University of Washington and Spokane community funders to bring the second year of medical school to Spokane, instead of just the first year that WWAMI sites have traditionally hosted. (WWAMI is the acronym for the medical education program that serves the states of Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho.)

Spokane leaders embraced the vision of a medical school to anchor the city’s largest economic sector — health care. Medical schools are economic engines that attract federal research dollars and create jobs and the potential for spin-off companies.

Benefit to state

It’s well known that states with multiple medical schools benefit. Consider the difference between Washington and Michigan, two states that are similar in population and economic size.

In 2011 the economic benefit of the UW School of Medicine was estimated at $5.7 billion. In Michigan, its four accredited medical schools had an estimated economic impact of $23 billion.

With the significant benefits the UW School of Medicine already bring to the state economy, and the impact in Spokane that WSU’s investments are having — more than $140 million in research funding awarded since 2005 — some may wonder why a controversy has arisen over a few million dollars of state appropriations.

Building on smart investment

Rather than view past (WWAMI) appropriations as property to be divided in a divorce settlement, they should be evaluated as positive investments that will continue to have enormous benefits.

WSU has been a good steward of its state appropriations, educating not only first-year WWAMI students, but also graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in biomedical sciences. Our faculty members conduct research and participate in a new community consortium that trains urgently needed medical residents in primary care fields.

Questions are being asked about WWAMI funding because the UW insisted that WSU leave the partnership if we continued to pursue an independently accredited medical school. Despite WSU no longer being a WWAMI partner, we believe it is in the best interest of the state to expand WWAMI and to start a second public medical school.

Doing so should be seen as a tribute to the vision of University of Washington leaders 45 years ago, to Spokane leaders 25 years ago and to our state Legislature, which has invested wisely in the health sciences on both sides of Washington.