Alaska's lone medical school may need state resuscitation
Nearly $3.1 million in state funding for Alaska's only medical school would be cut under Gov. Mike Dunleavy's proposed state budget for fiscal year 2020.
The reason? Statistics presented to the governor's budget committee show the investment isn't keeping licensed physicians through the regional WWAMI program, named after its component states: Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. The program, offered in-state at the University of Alaska Anchorage, is intended to train medical students for service in Alaska.
“The WWAMI program has not proven effective at meeting the demand for new physicians, despite a significant state investment over the years," Dunleavy said in a budget document listing his rationale, which added that the percentage of program graduates practicing in Alaska “continues to decrease.”
In a detailed budget analysis posted online, administration officials say that from 2014 to 2018, the percent of WWAMI graduates practicing in Alaska dropped from 84 percent to 61 percent.
In a message to Alaska medical students via Skype on Thursday night, the University of Washington School of Medicine’s Suzanne Allen said those figures are misleading. She says the pool the budget refers to is made up of all WWAMI students in the five-state region, while Alaska-based students stay in the state at a higher rate.
Foundations Alaska WWAMI interim director Megan Ritter said the collaboration is operated through the University of Washington School of Medicine. According to Ritter, no other school in the nation supplies as many physicians as the Alaska WWAMI program.
"The students are able to train here," Ritter said. "They're able to do their medical school training and connect with their family and network with different practices in town with the intent that they'll be able to come back."
WWAMI grads who don’t come back to Alaska to practice are required to pay the state back including interest. The state only pays about half of students' tuition to help cover out-of-state tuition costs.
The Dunleavy budget's proposed $3.1 million means a 100 percent reduction in state funds for the second through fourth years of students' medical education. If cut, it would make it difficult for the program to survive.
"The University of Washington School of Medicine is the number one primary care graduate medical school in the nation," Ritter said. '"It's in the top 10 of medical schools, so the positions that are held for the Alaska students gives our Alaska students an opportunity to attend not only a top 10 medical school, but also to graduate from a school which is number one in the nation for primary care graduates and that's really where the need is here in our state."
The University of Washington's Seattle-based School of Medicine receives around 7,000 applicants each year for 100 spots in the program. Through the WWAMI program, Alaska receives 20 seats in the program, which see 80 to 90 applicants each year.
"It is the only option if you want to pursue a medical degree," said fourth-year medical student Stephen Ellison, who is from Klawock. "You can apply to medical schools outside of the WWAMI program, but it's incredibly difficult to get into those programs."
Ellison says he tried to enroll in California but wasn't able to get in.
"Most state schools are required to take a certain percentage of that state's residents," Ellison said. "When I was applying to medical schools in California, I believe it was somewhere around 90 percent state residents that those schools take, so it's hard to compete against those people for those spots. So, this was by far my best chance of getting into medical school."
Getting physicians to come to Alaska and stay is a big problem. Through the WWAMI program and its five-state partnership, students from other states get the chance to visit and work in Alaska.
"Getting them up here to see what the medical environment is like is very important for future recruiting of physicians," said fourth-year student Monica Logan, an Anchorage resident. "Being exposed to what our state's complexities are, with the distance that we travel and I think that's vital."
For other students, it's a chance to stay closer to home.
"For someone like me, who's grown up in rural Alaska, having the opportunity to train in this state only solidifies my connection to the state and my desire to want to come back and work here," Ellison said.
According to UW's Suzanne Allen, Alaska has the fourth-best return rate for medical school students, behind only Texas, California, and Wyoming.
"It takes a minimum of seven years for a physician to come out of training," Ritter said. "So, this won't be felt initially, but give it a decade and there will be a definite impact, particularly because of the aging population of the state."
WWAMI hopes to work with the governor's office to help him better understand the impact to students and Alaska if the funding were to disappear.
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