In an effort to alleviate Idaho’s doctor shortage, the Idaho Board of Education is asking state lawmakers to approve money to pay for five additional students to attend the University of Washington’s medical school in Seattle.
Idaho, like Alaska, Montana and Wyoming, does not have its own medical school. Instead, the four states rely on a program known as WWAMI.
The program (which sounds like “whammy”) is based at the University of Washington School of Medicine. A certain number of students from each of the four states attend, paying in-state tuition instead of the more expensive out-of-state price.
Each participating state helps pay the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition. One state-sponsored medical student in the WWAMI program costs about $50,000 per year. Today, Idaho has a total of 80 seats, 20 per year.
The five additional spots would be part of an effort to train rural doctors. It’s called The Targeted Rural and Underserved Track, or TRUST program. It’s housed at the University of Washington and is a component of WWAMI.
Dr. Ted Epperly was one of the 20 students accepted into the WWAMI program in 1975. “When I went to medical school…the size of Idaho was 750,000 people,” Epperly says. “Now, 35 years later, we have the same number of seats but Idaho has doubled to 1.5 million.” According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, Idaho ranks 49th in the number of doctors per 100,000 people.
Epperly, who runs the Idaho Family Medical Residency program says in order for Idaho to start increasing the number of doctors practicing in the state, lawmakers would need to triple their commitment to WWAMI, growing the program to 60 first-year seats. Because of the state’s constricted budget, he’s encouraging lawmakers this upcoming session to start with funding for five additional spots.
The Legislature this year approved a $3.98 million WWAMI budget.
Suzanne Allen is the Vice Dean for Regional Affairs, at the University of Washington School of Medicine. “I’m not holding my breath that we’re going to get funding for more than two [additional] at a time,” she says.
When Idaho became a member of WWAMI in 1972, it started with 10 students and has incrementally moved up to 20 since then. The number of seats hasn’t changed since 2007.
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Still, there’s no guarantee adding more Idaho seats to the program would increase the number of physicians in the state. Students who participate in WWAMI aren’t required to return to work in their home state.
Despite that, the University of Washington estimates that more than 60 percent of students who graduate from WWAMI choose to practice within the five-state region. Seventy percent of Idaho’s WWAMI graduates return.
The state of Idaho also subsidizes the cost of tuition for eight students at the University of Utah’s School of Medicine.