A prescription for Washington’s doctor shortage

By Ken Roberts, Special to the Herald

At Kadlec Medical Center in Richland, you’ll occasionally find University of Washington medical students in white lab coats.

Some are with doctors who are tutoring them during their six-week-long obstetrics clerkships. These students learn how to care for expectant moms and their unborn children. They also learn how to deliver babies.

Most of these doctors-to-be come from Washington. They’re among 140 Washington medical students admitted by the UW each year. But for every one who is chosen, four students are turned away. Many who aren’t accepted in Washington go away to medical schools in other states and never return.

That loss of talent has a big effect on the state’s hospitals and clinics. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, Washington now imports 85 percent of its physicians from other states and countries.

The problem is especially acute in rural areas that have trouble recruiting doctors. One example is Garfield County, an agricultural area in southeastern Washington, which recently went two years without a practicing physician within the county.

Between 1970 and 2007, the number of medical students in the state remained about the same while Washington’s population grew by more than 3 million people (a 90 percent increase).

In 2008, UW took a step to address the problem by adding 20 students a year in Spokane, the result of a partnership with Washington State University. This summer, several first-year medical students will spend a month working in hospitals and clinics in Eastern and Central Washington, in places like Pasco, Othello and Prosser.

WSU is working with UW to bring more medical students to Spokane – perhaps as many as 100 additional students per year. We believe the additional students would help satisfy some, but not all, of the demand for doctors in Eastern and Central Washington.

The reality is that a lot of work must be done first. WSU is asking for $70 million from the state’s capital budget for a new building where it would teach the expanded classes and house an expanded faculty. The building would also be home to the university’s College of Pharmacy, which already has an important research and teaching presence in Spokane.

WSU also is asking for $600,000 to prepare to add second-year medical students to the curriculum. That would allow medical students the option of spending their entire four years in Spokane. Currently, second-year students are required to study in Seattle.

In addition, UW wants $1.2 million to develop residency programs in Spokane and Eastern Washington, including the Tri-Cities, where medical school graduates would complete their training before becoming licensed physicians.

We’re grateful that state legislators recognize the need to expand our medical education program. And though we know money is tight in Olympia this year, we believe now is the time to act. In most cases, it takes seven years for a medical student to become a practicing physician. The longer we wait to address this increasing need, the longer it will take to fill the growing demand for doctors in Washington.

Benton and Franklin County residents can learn more about why expanding medical education is a high priority at or at

— Dr. Ken Roberts is the director of the Washington Wyoming Alaska Montana Idaho medical education program in Spokane.

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