Don’t reduce medical schooling to cross-state rivalry

Smart people disagree on the need for a new Washington State University medical school, but there’s no disagreement on two points.

One: The state needs a whole lot more primary care doctors. Rural areas especially are short on physicians, and many of those they do have will soon be retiring.

Two: The University of Washington’s School of Medicine does a spectacular job of training primary care doctors.

One and Two add up to a clear conclusion: Whatever the Legislature does about the WSU medical school, it should continue to expand the UW School of Medicine in Spokane.

The UW already admits classes of 40 Washington medical students a year to its branch in Spokane, in addition to the classes of 80 it teaches in Seattle, for a total of 120 graduates a year. It also trains medical students from Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho – which have no medical schools – at the expense of those states.

Those graduating classes are not nearly large enough – hence the argument for a second school in Spokane carrying the WSU brand. A WSU medical school has substantial support in the Legislature, which is moving to repeal a 1917 law that allows only one state-funded medical school in Washington.

The UW School of Medicine runs its Spokane classes in partnership with WSU at Washington State’s large Riverpoint campus. UW Medicine and WSU health sciences are joined at the hip there. They’ve shared state-funded faculty, classrooms and laboratories. They’ve shared expansion plans, jointly preparing to graduate more physicians for Washington.

That tight partnership ruptured last year when WSU decided to pursue an independent medical school of its own. The problem is, UW Medicine and WSU still share the funding and the classrooms.

The UW doesn’t want to be evicted and doesn’t want Washington State to walk off with the $5.99 million-a-year budget, which would shut down UW medical training at Riverpoint.

WSU has the potential to run a superb medical school, as evidenced by the work it’s already done in partnership with the UW. Its leaders plan to focus on graduating front-line doctors who would practice in smaller communities in Eastern Washington and elsewhere in the state.

But the existing UW School of Medicine is already about as good as they come. It is consistently rated first in the nation – above the likes of Harvard and Stanford – in educating primary care physicians. It has extensive ties with rural and small-town doctors and clinics, where it sends third- and fourth-year students to study under practicing physicians in real-world settings.

If the Legislature opts to create a WSU medical school, good for Washington State. But the exceptionally strong UW program in Spokane shouldn’t be sacrificed in the bargain. Nor should lawmakers derail its proposed expansion, which could ultimately increase its graduating classes to 120 new doctors a year.

The UW School of Medicine already has accreditation, a large network of rural teaching clinics, and a well-earned reputation. It will take WSU years to catch up; accreditation alone can be time-consuming.

In the meantime, the Legislature should reinforce success by creating more seats at UW Medicine in Spokane. Medical education is far too important to reduce to a cross-state Husky-vs.-Cougar rivalry.

Washington needs more doctors, and it may need another medical school. What it doesn’t need is a political Apple Cup that could weaken the best primary care program in the country.