Medical education expansions underway in Idaho, Washington



By Journal Staff and wire reports

Efforts to give medical students more opportunities closer to home and to address physician shortages in rural and underserved populations are underway in both Idaho and Washington.

Robert Hasty, founding dean and chief academic officer for the Idaho College of Osteopathic Medicine (ICOM), said they’re still on track to open Idaho’s first medical school in the fall of 2018.

“If anything, we’re speeding up in terms of where we are in the process,” he said.

Hasty said they are finalizing curriculum, hiring faculty and working towards pre-accreditation status. They hope to break ground in the next couple of months.

The private medical school, which will be near Idaho State University’s Meridian Health Science Center, will accept 150 students per class when it opens.

Hundreds of future doctors could also soon be training in the eastern Washington city of Spokane, where there are plans to open a new medical school and dramatically expand a modest medical training program.

It’s the culmination of years of efforts by civic leaders to expand education offerings that have the potential to grow the economy.

The most high-profile development is Washington State University’s (WSU) creation of the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine.

Named for the late WSU president who pushed for its creation, the Floyd College received preliminary accreditation in October and has started accepting applications for its first class. The school plans to enroll 60 students per class, with the first class starting in August.

Getting less attention, but just as significant, is the University of Washington’s (UW) decision to expand its medical training in Spokane.

The university has long operated the state’s only public medical school. For years, it placed about 20 medical students per year in Spokane as part of its WWAMI program that trains doctors for the states of Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho.

But UW last fall expanded that program to 60 first-year students in Spokane.

Now the university is asking the Legislature for more than $9 million, so it can train a total of 80 medical students per class in Spokane.

The UW School of Medicine partners with Gonzaga University to provide the medical training in the Lilac City.

The goal is to reduce the shortage of doctors, particularly in rural and underserved areas. Half the state’s doctors work in the Seattle region, while many parts of the state do not have enough physicians.

“The first step toward addressing a physician shortage is to educate more medical students, and especially those students who are interested in practicing rural medicine,” said Dr. Suzanne Allen, vice dean for academic, rural and regional Affairs for UW.

“Our program has yielded very good results: 52 percent of our graduates have returned to Washington to practice, compared to the national average of 39 percent,” she said.

Medical students tend to practice where they train, Allen said.

“From our standpoint, the more time people spend here, the more they’ll want to work here,” Allen said.

ICOM hopes to address the physician shortage in Idaho, which officials say ranks among the lowest in the nation for active physicians per capita. In addition, the school wants to provide more educational opportunities to students in this state. Idahoans will be given some preference during the admission process — as well as those in Wyoming, South and North Dakota, and Montana.

Hasty said they’ve committed to keeping tuition costs below the national average to make education more affordable.

But they still need to open the school before they can make that happen.

In December, the American Osteopathic Association’s Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation (commonly called COCA) deferred its decision on whether to grant pre-accreditation status to ICOM. That’s not considered an adverse decision, but rather a “not at this time” signal from the accreditation agency.

Hasty said that’s not uncommon, and COCA just wanted some additional information.

“(Our) next meeting is in April,” Hasty said, adding that he’s feeling pretty good about the upcoming meeting.

Hasty said they hope to break ground in April so they can have the building ready to go in time for the first class in August of 2018.

Although ICOM is not required to obtain a minimum number of new residency positions, officials say the school is committed to developing more residencies in Idaho and surrounding states.

Hasty said ICOM has budgeted $5 million dollars to put toward the development of residency programs in the first 10 years.

“Hospitals say they don’t want to start residencies (because of the) upfront expenses,” Hasty said, adding that the seed money will be used to help facilities with some of the costs.

Benefis Health Systems in Great Falls, Montana, has already committed to offering 78 new residency positions. But it was denied “sponsoring institution” status by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education in August.

Still, Hasty said he is confident Benefis will win accreditation for the residencies by the time the college’s first class of students graduates in 2022.

Hasty said the school is also working with other medical groups in its five-state region to secure additional residencies.

ICOM officials hope the medical school will not only address the physician shortage in Idaho, but it will also help the economy for years to come.

“ICOM is expected to have a $78.6 million economic impact during the start-up and construction period with 350 new jobs created as a result of the construction and planning,” according to information the school provided to the Journal. “ICOM will employ 71 full-time staff members for an estimated annual impact of $54.4 million for the region and, upon full capacity, support of 245 direct and indirect jobs each year.”