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Spokane Pushes For Four-Year Medical School To Ease Rural Physician Shortage

Doug Nadvornick

Hospitals and clinics in rural parts of the Northwest worry there may be a day when they'll no longer have doctors. They say older physicians are leaving the profession faster than medical schools can train their replacements. They say it's also getting harder to lure physicians to small towns. Spokane medical leaders say if they can train more doctors in eastern Washington, they might be able to convince more of them to stay here. Correspondent Doug Nadvornick reports from Spokane.


Sound: (college students talking)

It's orientation day for 20 first–year medical students and eight dental students in Spokane. They've been cooped up all day in an auditorium. Now they're headed for a barbecue. But first, a photographer corrals them in a stairwell for a group picture.

Photographer: "You guys are going to have to get friendlier than that. There it is. OK. (click) One, two — "

These are University of Washington medical students. The university trains prospective physicians not just at its Seattle campus, but also in eastern Washington and four other states: Idaho, Montana, Alaska and Wyoming. These mostly rural states don't have medical schools of their own, nor do they have enough doctors. Ken Roberts, who heads Spokane's medical program, expects the shortage will become even more acute.

Ken Roberts: "What's scaring everybody is that there's a bubble of retirement coming that will make the situation much worse and the supply that will backfill in behind that is not nearly enough to meet the need."

Roberts says one solution is to train more doctors.

Each year, the University of Washington takes in about 100 new medical students at its Seattle campus and about 20 at each of its five satellite locations. Roberts wants to bump Spokane's quota to 80.

The students spend their first year in their designated community. They go back to Seattle for their second year of training. Then they return to their communities for their third and fourth years.

Spokane County Medical Society president Gary Knox says that arrangement breaks the continuity in a student's education. He wants students to spend their whole four years in one place.

Gary Knox: "If they do a residency program in the community, then they're even more likely to stay in that general area."

Knox's theory may be valid for at least one student in Spokane.

Jon Anderson will do his next two years of study in his hometown. After that, he hopes to stay.

Jon Anderson: "I would love to be able to come back, settle here and practice medicine in whatever capacity that ends up being."

That's exactly what Ken Roberts wants to hear. But his vision of an expanded medical school in Spokane has some significant hurdles.

Ken Roberts: "It is a very bad time to be doing expansion from a fiscal point of view."

The Legislature struggled to balance the current budget and the outlook for the next one isn't particularly good either. But Roberts hopes, by stressing the economic benefits of an expanded medical school, that Spokane can convince lawmakers to allocate the money for one.

The other sites in the University of Washington's medical school circle are watching with great interest. Susie Pouliot from the Idaho State Medical Association says her state needs to train more medical students as well.

Susie Pouliot: "We have a policy right now that we feel we need to double the seats at the University of Washington to start to make a dent in the capacity need that we have."

But even that might not be enough to satisfy Idaho's demand for doctors, says Andrew Turner. He's the director of the university's medical education program in Moscow, Idaho. He says the shortage is already a problem.

Andrew Turner: "We're too far behind. I think our only hope is to make a good dent in it and make this a more attractive place to come and practice."

Sound: (clapping)

During a ceremony, the first–year medical students in Spokane are presented with the stethoscopes they'll use for the next four years. They're a long way from determining their future. But Ken Roberts and others hope that they'll decide to stay close to home and start their careers in the inland Northwest.

I'm Doug Nadvornick in Spokane.

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