Guest Opinions

WWAMI network is key to relieving Idaho’s physician shortage

Rod Gramer.
Rod Gramer.

Preparing the next generation of doctors for Idaho is one of the most urgent education issues facing our state. That’s because Idaho has one of the biggest physician shortages in the country, especially in our rural areas.

Last December a special Medical Education Committee formed by the State Board of Education made several recommendations to increase the number of doctors and other health care professionals serving our state. To help address the physician shortage, it recommended:

▪  Growing residencies, especially for primary care. Fortunately, the 2017 Legislature approved $2.4 million to expand residencies.

▪  Increasing the number of qualified clinical preceptors to train medical students.

▪  Enhancing loan repayment programs to establish parity with other states.

▪  Establishing scholarships for Idaho students who agree to serve four years in rural areas.

▪  Establish pre-med tracks in undergraduate institutions.

▪  Continue supporting medical school slots through the University of Washington (WWAMI) and the University of Utah cooperative programs.

We are glad the committee recommended continued support for WWAMI because it is a proven way to provide highly trained doctors for the people of Idaho. More than 15 percent of all doctors who have worked in Idaho went through the WWAMI programs.

WWAMI started in 1971 as a cooperative medical education program between Idaho and Washington, Alaska and Montana. Idaho WWAMI operates in partnership with the University of Washington School of Medicine, the University of Idaho, and multiple hospitals, clinics and physicians throughout the state.

WWAMI educates 130 medical students each year in Idaho, a number that is expected to grow to 160. Idaho WWAMI students study in Moscow for the first two years of their training and pay in-state tuition, thus leveraging the resources of UW’s No. 1 public medical school in the country, while saving money.

Idaho WWAMI students also do clinical training across Idaho, especially in our rural communities. This gives them an opportunity to provide much-needed care in these towns.

They also receive one-on-one mentoring from volunteer physician preceptors, many of whom are WWAMI graduates themselves. Since 1971, 578 doctors have gone through the Idaho WWAMI program. Of those, half have practiced in Idaho for one or more years. Many chose to practice in the rural communities where they grew up or did their clinical training.

In Idaho, we look for ways to stretch taxpayer dollars. Because of our partnership with the University of Washington, WWAMI is a fiscally responsible way to help address the physician shortage. It is also a sound way to help our state’s bottom line. For every public dollar invested in WWAMI, more than $5 returns to the state’s health care economy, according to a study by the University of Idaho.

There are many things we must do to help address our physician shortage in Idaho. WWAMI is a home-grown, proven and cost-effective way to address the vital need for quality medical care.

Skip Oppenheimer is founding chair of Idaho Business for Education (IBE) and sits on both the University of Washington School of Medicine and St. Luke’s Health System boards. Rod Gramer is president of IBE and chairs the Idaho WWAMI Advisory Committee.