Guest Opinions

Idaho WWAMI is key to solving rural physician shortage

Our nation is facing a shortage of physicians, and the pinch is felt even more in rural parts of the country like the Gem State. For over 47 years, Idaho WWAMI has played a critical role in combating this challenge while improving access to physicians and quality health care for Idahoans. WWAMI is University of Washington School of Medicine’s multistate medical education program. WWAMI stands for the participating states: Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho.

This fall, Idaho WWAMI welcomes a new class of first-year medical students. The program has educated hundreds of physicians over the life of the program — a majority of whom return to practice medicine in Idaho. In fact, for every dollar the state invests in WWAMI, $5.10 returns to our state’s economy.

WWAMI allows aspiring physicians to stay in their home state through their first years of medical education. The program is a strategic partnership with the nationally recognized University of Washington School of Medicine. Successful medical schools are expensive and complex enterprises that take decades to build. Ranked at the top of all medical schools for family and rural medicine, UW is the ideal fit to partner with the University of Idaho to educate Idaho’s doctors. Earning and retaining such significant national prominence empowers Idaho’s medical students to obtain an education and practical experience that places them among the best in the country.

In Idaho, 80 medical students each semester study at University of Idaho’s main campus in Moscow. As a national research university, UI just opened two state-of-the-art facilities to support WWAMI. The first is the WWAMI teaching and learning center with innovative classrooms and unique spaces for instruction and collaboration. The second is an advanced, world-class anatomy laboratory located just steps away on the campus of Gritman Medical Center — a leading critical access hospital — where WWAMI students learn in real-world and simulation environments. Once the students have finished their two years at UI, they transition to the UW medical campus in Seattle to complete their education.

The state of Idaho has a stake in providing a financially viable path for Idahoans to seek a top-tier medical education, starting at home, because we rank 49th for the number of primary care physicians per capita. Idaho WWAMI is key to filling the pipeline of physicians with those who know and love Idaho and will be inclined to practice here.

One hallmark program called RUOP (Rural Underserved Opportunities Program) places first- and second-year medical students in a rural clinic for a hands-on, immersion experience shadowing a physician mentor. RUOP originated in Hailey 30 years ago this summer and was so successful that it’s now emulated throughout the WWAMI region. Idaho students and physician alumni credit this experience with making them fall in love with rural medicine.

Because the state of Idaho covers the out-of-state portion of WWAMI’s tuition expense, medical students from Sandpoint to Boise to Malad can attend a leading medical school while paying only in-state tuition. This is a significant advantage for students in Idaho where financial barriers to education are more pronounced than states with higher average household incomes.

More than anything, the biggest long-term benefit of WWAMI is that many WWAMI graduates, having been educated in Idaho, stay here to practice medicine and serve patients in their home state’s communities. We have witnessed this firsthand as Dr. Kraig White, a UI WWAMI graduate and respected physician, was recently elected as the chair of the Gritman Medical Center Board of Directors — the first physician to hold that position since our founder, Dr. Charles Gritman. This completes the circle that starts with the sound investment of state resources, the dream of becoming a doctor and the belief that we can build a brighter future for health care in Idaho.

Peter Mundt is the Director of Community Relations and Marketing at Gritman Medical Center in Moscow and serves on the University of Idaho WWAMI Medical Education Program Advisory Board.
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