Fund WSUs future physicians neglected communities need them

Washington State University Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine students study a human heart in their state-of-the-art anatomy lab. (WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine)

I have dedicated my life to fighting inequity wherever it exists. Chairing the Washington State University Board of Regents has provided me the opportunity to pursue one of the greatest inequities of our time access to quality health care.

Today, thats dictated by your ZIP code and socioeconomic status. Washingtonians in rural and economically depressed urban areas simply dont have adequate access to physicians providing basic services including family medicine, pediatrics and psychiatry even as the state sinks deeper into a behavioral-health crisis.

Better health-care outcomes require more physicians practicing in these challenging health-care environments. Not yet four years old, the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine is working to change outcomes by changing inputs, and the Legislature should support it as it scales up with physicians of the future.

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Our students chosen for life experiences, personal backgrounds and other intangibles that inspire them to serve in these environments are the difference. At WSU, test scores and GPA are used only to screen for academic qualification. The admissions committee is blinded to them highly unusual among medical schools so that decisions are heavily influenced by things like adversities overcome, leadership roles, communication skills and tenacity. We mine for future students in community colleges, for instance, because those students often have overcome obstacles and demonstrate the kind of public-service DNA were looking for.

After admitting its first two classes of 60 students each, this approach has produced a student body thats simply different. More than a quarter are first-generation college students and almost one-third are students of color. Amazingly, 38 percent come from low-income backgrounds, 58 percent are women and 44 percent of students are 25 or older. A full 100 percent are from Washington, with 59 communities represented so far.

Now WSU is asking the Legislature for the funding to admit 20 more physicians of the future each year, starting in August, consistent with WSUs plan to scale to classes of 80 students each.

Unfortunately, the budget proposal introduced in the House of Representatives on Monday did not include funding for the planned expansion.  The Legislature should rectify that by including the necessary funding in the budget plan they send to the governor.

Doing so would mean that more students like Battle Grounds David Choi, who didnt think he could afford college let alone medical school until a College Bound Scholarship changed his trajectory. Now hes eyeing a career in psychiatry working with underserved communities.

And it would mean that more students like Nina Thach, the first in her family to go to college, who chose to pursue her dream of becoming a family physician at WSU because of its model of community-centered care. Under that model, students in their third and fourth years fan out across the state for clinical training in actual hospitals and clinics.

WSU has signed 85 clinical affiliates to date including those serving four Native American tribes and more than half the states critical access hospitals. Were training students where theyll practice, from Vancouver to Colville and Pomeroy to Forks.

Thats important, because rural areas and underserved communities are where the need for doctors is greatest. Imagine living in Garfield County, a farming center with onlythree doctors. Or in Yakima, where the wait to see a family-practice doctor was anaverage 153 daysin 2017. Imagine waiting five months for a checkup.

Even in King County, where you live determines health-care outcomes.

The Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine and its students are here to help. They deserve the states support.

is chair of the Washington State University Board of Regents. He is a former deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and former King County Executive.