WWAMI is more than just a well-run decentralized medical school

October 19, 2021 4:20 am

A steel structure is beginning to give shape to what will become the Rocky Vista University Medical School and campus in Billings on the west end of the town. (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan)

The path to becoming a physician looks different for everyone who embarks on the challenging but rewarding journey. Though the pressures of medical school and having someone’s health in your hands are often difficult, it is a career path that attracts bright, mission-driven people who take public trust seriously. It is a field full of people who prioritize personal and professional growth, a commitment to their community, and a strong desire to continue growing and serving humanity.

It is precisely this beautiful duality — the pressures of the work and the opportunity to improve the lives of my fellow Montanans — that makes Montana WWAMI (the joint medical school program run through the University of Washington that supports Wyoming, Washington, Alaska, Montana and Idaho) so dear to me. I feel very lucky; I get to practice medicine in my beloved home state while teaching and mentoring current WWAMI students. Seeing these students’ passion for medicine and their dedication to public health is inspiring and keeps me joyous about my profession. This, coupled with the close relationships I get to develop with my patients, makes my profession both a privilege and a calling.

WWAMI operates through a partnership with Montana State University and the University of Washington School of Medicine. This decentralized medical school serves students in Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho (hence, the acronym WWAMI). WWAMI is a prestigious program that provides a world-class medical education that promotes community service and rural health care to students in states that would otherwise not have a brick-and-mortar institution fueling physicians interested in rural health care. It is a fantastic program that perennially receives high marks nationally, and is especially recognized for primary care — this year again, first in the nation — which is exceptionally good news for Montana’s rural areas that lack enough primary care physicians to meet the need.

It’s an advantage to have faculty from a five-state region in a collegial relationship with those of us in Montana, as well as our students. As I moved up the ladder of leadership as a teacher with WWAMI, I was able to meet with teachers from around the world in Seattle and share best practices and keep up with cutting edge medicine, which would not have been possible for me in Montana otherwise. I get to then pass on that knowledge to my students and local colleagues.

WWAMI is an excellent partner with the nearly 20 rural clinical sites where its students train in Montana. As a former student and a current teacher, I love that teachers truly take the feedback from students who are doing their rotations, and incorporate any needed changes into our teaching. Across the region, the well-vetted teaching faculty genuinely respect and value what students say about how we can continuously improve the teaching culture, environment, and efficacy of our interactions so we can authentically help our students learn and succeed.

Something all Montanans should understand about WWAMI is that it’s a highly cost-effective medical education model for Montana. It costs around $4 or $5 per capita to train students here through WWAMI, whereas in a comparable school in, say, South Dakota, with its brick-and-mortar medical school, the cost is easily five to seven times that amount. As such, WWAMI graduates often leave with less debt than private medical schools. WWAMI is a public institution and is beholden to you, the public, instead of private stakeholders. For me, ethically, it makes more sense for the education and training of physicians to have the public they serve, that is the public and taxpayers as the primary stakeholders.

I worry about private medical schools coming to our state. I fear they will saddle students with more debt, making them less inclined toward rural primary care because doctors earn more as a specialist in a city. I also don’t believe there will be enough rotation sites to serve more medical students, and without more residency spots, I question how many of these additional medical students will end up staying in Montana to practice. But most of all, I worry that, at the end of the day, private schools have to report to investors, not the public they serve.

Montana WWAMI produces physicians who are well-trained, clinically proficient, prioritize service, and critically, students who care about their communities. Currently, there are six counties in Montana that don’t have any physicians at all, so the relationship that people in rural parts of the state develop with the physician they reach is critically important and cannot be measured with numbers. Training physicians here in Montana who are from here and who understand the people here is a critical piece in taking care of our population, regardless of whether they live in Billings or Missoula, Troy or Wolf Point.

I’m honored to practice and teach in Montana and thankful to WWAMI for making it possible. I am proud to be a part of WWAMI’s nearly 50-year legacy in our state.

Zach Meyers, MD, practices at Bozeman Health Family Medicine Clinic and teaches for the UWSOM WWAMI program at MSU where he is Big Sky College Head. He is a graduate of Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, completed his internship and residency at Montana Family Medicine Residency, and then a fellowship at University of Washington WWAMI Program. Prior to moving to Bozeman, he joined Montana Family Medicine Residency as a faculty physician, both teaching and practicing medicine at Riverstone Community Health Center.

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