Fertile ground: How building communities helps retain Idaho physicians
If the Legislature wants doctors to stay beyond the required four years, communities need to be attractive, not an obligation, writes guest columnist Dan Schmidt.
Undoubtedly, supporting WWAMI Medical Education is a good investment, as is funding residency programs for the advanced training of medical graduates. These are basic investments a state can make for the good of its residents. But to attract the most talented folks in the health professions, you need to make your state a desirable place to live, writes guest columnist Dan Schmidt.
In 1982, I started medical school at the University of Idaho with WAMI Medical Education. Today, Idaho’s premier medical school is known as WWAMI, which stands for the states that partner with the University of Washington School of Medicine: Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho (Wyoming had not yet joined the regional medical school when I started).
After taking classes on campus, WAMI rotations brought my growing family through Seattle, Boise and Pocatello. In every town we visited and drove through along the way, we wondered if they might need a doctor in the years ahead. We found most would. Then we started thinking about just where we would want to live. What kind of town would suit us and our growing family?
That is the question I wish our state Legislature would ask as it considers funding medical education. Undoubtedly, supporting WWAMI Medical Education is a good investment, as is funding residency programs for the advanced training of medical graduates. These are basic investments a state can make for the good of its residents. But to attract the most talented folks in the health professions, you need to make your state a desirable place to live.
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Consider what makes a community feel like home — many things beyond medical education. It might mean schools with teachers that are adequately compensated to teach the doctors’ kids.
It might mean having welcoming communities that heartily welcome diverse medical and mental health care providers.
It might mean supporting the broadband infrastructure and information sharing needed to provide health care continuity across this huge state.
It might mean city parks that are clean and accessible, or wilderness and wild and scenic rivers that are well-managed. Recreation is an antidote to burnout.
The Legislature has chosen to require all WWAMI graduates to return to Idaho and work four years. It’s a kind of “payback” program, seeing as the state pays for half a student’s tuition. I hope it works the way they want it to, and we end up with more young physicians putting down roots in Idaho. I argue, if you want doctors to stay in Idaho beyond their required four years, the communities need to be attractive, not an obligation.
As a physician, I see 20-30 patients a day. Hopefully, those one-to-one interactions help make those individuals healthier. Communities as well as commerce, educational opportunities and culture thrive when healthy individuals can share their resources, talents and lived experiences to create a sense of place. This is the fertile soil where roots grow.
When my family did settle down, it was back in Moscow with our four young daughters. We joined a congregation, helped out in our kids’ schools and got involved in civic issues that we considered meaningful. Alongside career, it was these opportunities that made Moscow feel like home and have kept us here.
Our Legislature, our governors and our WWAMI leaders are to be commended for their wise vision and steady growth. Through five decades in the Gem State, Idaho WWAMI has evolved to give medical education access to more students. The cohort — composed entirely of students that are residents of Idaho — now has 40 seats, double from when I joined. The curriculum can be completed in-state, enabling our home-grown students to care for patients that, like them, are Idahoans. Further, it has maintained its reputation for excellent medical education, especially when it comes to family and rural medicine.
Along with continued funding for medical education and residencies, I hope Idaho will invest in communities through appropriations that support commerce, K-12 education and culture so WWAMI graduates want to live and work here. They are a resource we should cultivate. Idaho should be fertile soil for them and their family’s future.
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