As a practicing pediatrician in Pocatello for more than 40 years, I’ve seen firsthand Idaho’s critical shortage of doctors. Idaho ranks 49th of 50 states in physicians per capita. The shortage is most severe in smaller communities. As many doctors reach retirement age, and as our population grows and ages, medical care providers will be in higher demand. Thanks to Idaho’s Medical School, an innovative, 45-year partnership between the state of Idaho, the University of Washington Medical School and the University of Idaho — WWAMI — can address this challenge.
WWAMI stands for the participating states in the region: Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. For 23 years, WWAMI has been the nation’s No. 1 ranked medical school for primary care and rural medicine. WWAMI gives Idaho’s medical students options to gain exposure to a broad range of clinical opportunities, including rural medicine. Students complete the majority of all four years of their training in Idaho, increasing the likelihood of WWAMI students settling down to practice in their home state. Fifty-one percent of Idaho WWAMI graduates have chosen to practice here — 10 percent higher than the national average.
WWAMI combines the highest quality of academic excellence with early clinic exposure. This integrated program provides students with an ongoing, intense, hands-on clinical experience along with high-quality classroom education, beginning with the student’s first year. After four years of medical school, a three-year residency is required to become a licensed, practicing physician. There are currently only 42 first-year residency positions in Idaho, and competition for these positions is fierce.
Keeping residency programs in Idaho is critical to addressing Idaho’s shortage of physicians, as the majority of residency graduates end up practicing within 100 miles of their training site. Residents become part of the community, and most decide that they want to live, work and play near that site. Idaho needs more residency positions, something WWAMI is actively pursuing.
It’s been a joy to see Idaho WWAMI’s growth since 1973, when I co-founded the WWAMI pediatric clinical unit in Pocatello. For 30-plus years, I was an enthusiastic volunteer “preceptor,” mentoring the next generation of physicians. Partnering with the university’s top academicians, I mentored and taught medical students and residents. I was able to show them the challenges and the rewards of practicing primary care. Because of their experience, many of these students and residents decided to practice in Idaho. Preceptoring would not have been possible without WWAMI’s partnership.
I am convinced that Idaho’s relationship with WWAMI must be preserved if we are going to ensure a future supply of fully trained and qualified physicians who are dedicated to practicing here in Idaho. I also feel strongly that we need to make establishing more high-quality primary care residencies a first priority for our state.
Roger Boe, M.D., has practiced in Pocatello since 1965. He is Clinical Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics through the University of Washington School of Medicine.