WWAMI - unique program is vital to N.W. health care needs

Special to Living HealthySeptember 7, 2013 

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Dr. Sam Summers often employs humor to help get his point across when teaching — whether it’s with resident physicians or other groups, such as this diabetes management class.

DARIN OSWALD — doswald@idahostatesman.com Buy Photo

WWAMI is a medical education program created in 1971 as part of the University of Washington School of Medicine.

Without a program like this, rural states like Idaho would have a hard time attracting enough physicians.

Idaho already faces an uphill battle with a population that has doubled since the program began. Even with the program, only Mississippi has a worse doctor-per-capita ratio.

While other state medical universities may have placement programs, UW’s program is unique in that it brings four other states into a regional solution. WWAMI works by allowing first-year medical students to school and train in their home state.

After completing their second year of training at the medical school in Seattle, students can return home to complete their clinical training.

In fact, they can go anywhere within the WWAMI region and can select from a wide variety of opportunities, depending upon the type of medical experience they prefer. Students can design their own medical education.

After receiving their degrees, graduates may then apply to selected primary care residencies. The idea of the program is to prepare physicians for primary care practice, regardless of any eventual subspecialty, and to increase the number of physicians who choose to practice in rural or underserved areas.

This kind of decentralized medical training can be a great advantage compared to working in the typical urban, academic hospital setting.

Dr. Sam Summers, a WWAMI graduate and general practitioner at the Family Medical Clinic at West Valley Medical Center in Caldwell, says being able to get their practical experience away from the med school hospital is “a big deal,” because students will be treated more like peers than university underlings.

“They’re treated here as junior partners,” he said.

The retention numbers show just how successful the program has been. In 2012, Idaho had a retention rate of 50 percent for the program (263 out of 524).

“We’re getting a lot of bang out of our buck,” said Dr. Mary Barinaga, assistant dean for regional affairs with the UW School of Medicine in Idaho. “Our retention rate is almost 10 percent higher than the national average.”

In addition, 73 percent of WWAMI graduates practice or have practiced in Idaho over the years. And 56 percent of Idaho’s $3.4 million appropriations to the program in 2012 was spent in Idaho.

“Without WWAMI, we would not be in a position to move forward in primary care,” said CEO Julie Taylor of West Valley Medical Center. “The residency program has resulted in physicians in our community that we might not otherwise have found.”

Without a medical school in Idaho, the program is vital. Recently Gov. Butch Otter and the Idaho Legislature approved expansion of the program from 20 students to 25 students per year. There is a push to continue to expand to 40 students or even more.

Currently, WWAMI has a competitive application process for 235 students regionwide, and that number is expanding as health care needs continue to grow.

Residencies can be found in several dozen cities around Idaho.

“The truth is, if they hadn’t come to these residencies, they wouldn’t have come to Idaho,” Summers said. “It’s absolutely proved itself.”

Getting students to Idaho clinical rotations is half the battle.

Some who would not otherwise consider living in a rural state often discover they love it.

Take Southwest Idaho for example. Where else can you go to a Shakespeare Festival and yet go fly fishing 50 yards away? It also doesn’t hurt if a medical student in residency happens to meet their future spouse here.

And just because WWAMI states like Idaho are considered “rural,” that doesn’t mean they’re behind the times.

“The quality and type of care here is NOT rural,” Summers said. “There are a lot of world-class doctors in this area. The Valley is blessed.

“We get residents from all over,” Summers said. “It’s scary how good they are.”

And remember those 235 WWAMI slots? In 2010, the program had to sift through more than 7,000 applications for those openings.

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