The Friday Letter Archive

A collection of the president's weekly messages to the Vandal family


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Friday Letter 2013-11-15

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November 15, 2013

Dear Friends,
It takes a special kind of person to be a good doctor: someone who combines intellect with compassion. The Association of American Medical Colleges asks aspiring doctors not only whether they are interested in science but also whether they are good listeners who care deeply about other people, their problems, and their pain. Those who can truthfully say yes will have a future in the healing profession.
Perhaps no field of medicine demands a stronger alliance of the mind and heart than primary care. Pediatricians, family practitioners, and general internists, for example, treat a wide range of illnesses and regularly provide preventive care.  They enjoy long-term relationships with their patients and their communities. They usually earn less than surgeons and specialists, and their work bears little resemblance to a 9-to-5 job; but they are often described as heroes by their patients. Their service is noble and needed.
Idaho has faced a shortage of doctors for years, averaging 49th in the nation – and lowest among the western states -- for doctor availability. As of 2012, only five Idaho counties had an adequate number of doctors, according to federal guidelines. That shortage will worsen as doctors reach retirement in the coming decade. The American Medical Association estimates that approximately 42% of all physicians in Idaho are 55 years of age or older.
The problem is especially acute in the primary care field, where the costs of medical education collide with comparatively modest earnings. Fortunately, Idaho is responding. With support from our Board of Regents (the State Board of Education), the Governor’s Office, and the Legislature, our state is expanding its participation in WWAMI -- a remarkably cost-effective and efficient medical education partnership in which the states of Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho collaborate with each other and with the University of Washington School of Medicine. The program underwrites a portion of the students’ educational expenses, so they can afford to practice where they are most needed and their hearts take them.
For nearly 40 years, this program has trained 20 Idaho students per year, along with the students from other participating states, with a special emphasis on preparing the graduates to practice primary care medicine in rural and other under-served areas. This year the Idaho number grew to 25 students and, given the expressed interest of state leaders, we expect it to grow to 40 students annually by academic year 2017.
This growing program benefits Idaho in many ways:

  • We have a greater rate of return of our students than the national average of medical education programs –- more than 70 percent counting WWAMI students from other states who eventually choose to locate their practices in Idaho.
  • These students are among the best educated in the country. UW’s primary care program has been ranked at or near the top nationally throughout the past two decades. The WWAMI model delivers such high-quality and cost-effective instruction that it is attracting international attention as a possible model for transnational medical education.
  • The program generates research as well as instruction; indeed, the biomedical research productivity of the Idaho WWAMI faculty exceeds that of many faculty at conventional bricks-and-mortar medical schools. The research draws upon, and reinforces, our nationally known programs in biological sciences and bioinformatics.
  • Through the combination of instruction and research, the Idaho WWAMI program pumps five dollars into the Idaho economy for every dollar invested by Idaho taxpayers –- more than twice the average national rate of return.
Currently, the Idaho WWAMI program consists of the first-year experience in Moscow (slated to expand to 18 months under a contemplated curricular change), followed by study at the UW in Seattle, and then by clinical rotations in which the students can stay in Idaho or gain experience elsewhere within the five-state region. The program is evolving to offer almost all of the four years within Idaho, if a student so chooses. Moreover, beyond the M.D. degree, there are WWAMI-affiliated residency programs in our state to complete a physician’s training and to solidify further his or her likelihood of practicing in our state.
Many WWAMI graduates are serving in rural areas of Idaho, providing quality medical care in places ranging from St. Maries to McCall to Montpelier, where access to care would otherwise be absent or attenuated. Over the history of the WWAMI program, nearly 500 WWAMI graduates have entered practice in Idaho.  Many of them undoubtedly are caring for readers of this Friday Letter.
WWAMI provides the best of both worlds for Idaho and Idaho’s students: it enables new members of the healing profession to take their skills and their ideals into communities where they are needed most. The program is one more example of how the University of Idaho –- yes, Idaho’s national land-grant, founding, comprehensive, constitutional university! –- strengthens our lives and our livelihoods.
Go Vandals!

Don Burnett
Interim President

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