Commentary

WWAMI program the best way to recruit, retain Montana physicians

July 21, 2021 4:20 am

Photo illustration by Marco Verch via Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

If we want doctors in Montana, we have to train doctors in Montana.

WWAMI—Montana’s original medical school through the 50-year collaboration between Montana State University and the University of Washington School of Medicine—is the only medical school in the state.

WWAMI isn’t just the only game in town; it’s exceptional because it’s cultivating the physicians and community leaders of Montana’s tomorrow. Without WWAMI, the future of medicine here in the Treasure State is uncertain.

Dr. Leslee Kane of Bozeman (Photo courtesy of Leslee Kane)

Like many Montanans who are the first to pursue medical school in their family, my own journey to becoming a doctor wasn’t always clear. I didn’t dream about it from the time I was a little girl growing up in Bozeman. Early in my career, I studied education and planned to become a science teacher. When my father passed away unexpectedly just before I graduated from MSU, I was inspired to study medicine.

At that point, I knew I might be a less competitive candidate for most medical schools, where my fellow applicants would have spent years building up their credentials. Conventional wisdom held that if you’re from Montana, WWAMI is where you go to medical school. I never wanted to leave my home state—my family has been here for five generations—and I’m thankful that to go to med school, I didn’t have to.

Unlike the two medical schools, including one that is for-profit, planning to operate in Montana, WWAMI offers in-state tuition to Montana residents. For me, that translated to a savings of nearly $100,000. For those like me who had to work during college and didn’t have the benefit of college savings, taking on the crushing student loan debt required to attend a medical school would not have been a smart decision.

I graduated from the WWAMI program in 2007, then joined the United States Air Force and completed a three-year internship and residency in family medicine at Travis Air Force Base in California. In 2010, I moved to Fairchild Air Force Base Family Health Clinic in Spokane;  I later spent nine months with the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Zabul Province, Afghanistan. Thankfully, because of WWAMI, I was able to follow my dream to return to my hometown in Montana.  Today I work at Bozeman Health Family Medicine Clinic at Cottonwood as a Family Physician.

These days, as a WWAMI preceptor, I have the privilege to teach the next generation of Montana doctors. Most WWAMI students are from Montana, many of them from families that have lived here for generations. Often, they’re first-generation college graduates, and they’re almost always first-generation physicians.

One of my students, Will French of Hobson, is a prime example of the caliber of students WWAMI turns out. In college, he founded a nonprofit organization to serve families experiencing pregnancy loss. On his breaks, he went home to Hobson to work on his family’s farm. Completing medical school is a major accomplishment on its own, but as is typical of WWAMI students, Will has gone above and beyond. He’s already making plans to help mitigate disparities between rural and urban healthcare in Montana and was recently named to the Husky 100, an extremely competitive list of UW undergrad and graduate students whose capacity of leadership, discovery mindset, and commitment to inclusive community truly sets them apart.

I’m continually impressed by WWAMI students’ commitment to come back and serve their communities. Montanans are fiercely loyal to our state, and over the course of students’ time at WWAMI, we work to cultivate that instinct to come home and serve. Our formal mentorship program helps students navigate everything from practicing bedside interactions to figuring out how to balance medical school with starting a family—in other words, setting down roots here in Montana.

Dr. Leslee B. Kane returned to her hometown of Bozeman to join Bozeman Health Family Medicine Clinic as a family physician after graduating from Montana WWAMI in 2007. 

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