When you stand out on the OHSU Hospital plaza overlooking the Willamette River and Portland's famed bridges, the height is dizzying. Strange that the Rose City chose to build its medical center on land so hard to access and expand upon — in fact, Oregon Health & Science University had to build a $57 million tram to carry workers and students the 500 vertical feet from the campus to the river's edge.
Up I-5 in Seattle, the story's the same, as the University of Washington Medical School is hemmed in between Lake Washington and the sprawling UW campus. Despite their urban and geographic restrictions, the two schools are among the best in the world and have driven their cities to greater prosperity. They are the only two major medical schools in the Pacific Northwest, with a combined annual output of 235 MDs. The state of Missouri, by comparison, seats about 500 students in its six med schools with every new class.
This shortfall has been addressed in the states of Washington (Eastern Washington, in particular), Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho by WWAMI, which has educated doctors at UW to serve those relatively rural places. Since 2008, WWAMI has been the vehicle used at WSU Spokane's Riverpoint Campus.
But if you look at this from high above, you can see WWAMI is not enough anymore: We need more docs, and UW is not producing them fast enough. The Affordable Care Act calls for many more primary care physicians — 52,000 more by the year 2025. That's because when ACA is fully implemented, some 34 million new patients are expected to be using our health care system.
As I've watched all this play out at Riverpoint, it's become more apparent that we will continue to struggle to achieve our dream if key decisions have to run through Seattle. UW wants to grow at its own pace, some say due to concerns over maintaining quality. But the issue of national grant funding, which would be impacted if its WWAMI mission shrinks, is part of it, too.
Whatever the reasons, we have two different visions for Spokane — Seattle's and ours. That's why WSU President Elson Floyd and WSU Spokane Chancellor Lisa Brown are conducting a new study of the feasibility of an independent — perhaps primary-care-focused — medical school right here in Spokane.
Hopefully the Cougars and Huskies can work together to meet our common goals. But if we have to go out on our own, we're ready with focused leadership, a brand-new, expansive campus and an entire city and region ready to help make it happen. ♦