UI Students Receive World-Class Medical Education
WWAMI partnership gives Idaho students ability to earn medical degree with focus on rural practice.
Jordan Huttash knew she wanted to be a physician when she was 8 years old. She was the kid who always carried her plastic doctor’s tools around with her, the medic in her older brothers’ battle games.
She studied biology and Spanish at the College of Idaho, not far from her family in Nampa. After receiving her bachelor’s degree, she worked as a medical scribe at St. Alphonsus hospitals in Nampa and Boise.
In the emergency rooms, medicine was no game. Huttash saw patients in need and in pain. She met people who didn’t have insurance or couldn’t afford their medications. She met Spanish-speaking Idahoans who waited to seek treatment for fear of judgement or misunderstanding. She saw patient after patient who entered the ER dangerously ill because they didn’t have primary care doctors to help them before situations got serious.
Huttash saw a world that was far from ideal — and she knew what she wanted to do.
“Working with patients in real life and seeing medicine and health care how it is now, it removed any doubt,” she said about the decision to go to medical school.
She also had no doubt about where she wanted to go: Idaho’s WWAMI Medical Education Program, housed at the University of Idaho.
“The WWAMI program was my No. 1 choice,” she said. “I interviewed other places, but WWAMI was No. 1.”
Idaho’s Medical School
WWAMI stands for Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho: the states working together since 1977 (Wyoming joined in 1996) to deliver medical education in a largely rural region with a great need for physicians.
The program provides a unique opportunity for students to study in their home states while earning a medical degree from the University of Washington School of Medicine — U.S. News and World Report’s top-ranked school for primary care, family medicine and rural medicine — for a cost lower than the national average for public medical schools.
Every year since 2013 the Idaho Legislature has voted to add more seats to UI’s WWAMI program, allowing a growing wave of excited, dedicated and talented young Idahoans to begin their medical careers. This year, five more seats were added, bringing the total to 40.
75% of all WWAMI graduates practice in Idaho during their careers
Huttash, 25, was accepted into the program and began her studies in August 2015. She’s part of Idaho WWAMI’s largest-ever class, and the first class to use a new curriculum that allows the students to spend the vast majority of their four years of medical study in Idaho if they choose, rather than having to travel for long periods to Seattle.
Huttash and her 34 classmates will spend two years gaining foundational medical knowledge from top faculty at UI in Moscow. For their third and fourth years, they can choose to conduct their clinical studies in Seattle, across the WWAMI region or at home in Idaho: learning about obstetrics in Sandpoint, pediatrics in Idaho Falls or surgery in Boise.
“People ask, ‘Should Idaho have its own medical school?’” said Jeff Seegmiller, Idaho WWAMI director. “I always say, ‘We already do. We have students training throughout Idaho, from corner to corner.’”
Meeting a Need
WWAMI students begin serving Idaho and the region from the beginning of their medical education.
“We’ve been seeing patients since my third week of school,” Huttash said. “You’re not living through a textbook.”
Huttash interviews patients and helps form treatment plans at Washington State University’s student health clinic in Pullman. Her classmates see patients in Moscow, Pullman and Lewiston. Once every two weeks, they work in local hospitals.
“Our patients take such joy in helping us learn and give us such great feedback,” Huttash said. “They’re so receptive. They don’t hold how young we are against us. They really make us feel like, as first-year students, we can contribute.”
This early one-on-one patient contact — a rare feature for a medical school — supports WWAMI’s goal of introducing students to the medical needs in their communities, particularly rural communities.
Students in the Targeted Rural Underserved Track, or TRUST, take special classes on serving rural populations and are paired with one community for several clinical experiences throughout their education. Students between their first and second years can participate in the Rural/Underserved Opportunities Program (RUOP), where they spend six weeks living and working in a rural or underserved urban community in the WWAMI region.
These programs are vital to encouraging medical students to seek careers in places where they’re desperately needed.
“We have more medical schools that occur in very large urban areas, and the shortages throughout the country are in rural areas,” Seegmiller said. “We know that when students have more rural experience, there’s a greater chance they’ll understand rural needs and have a greater chance of coming back to practice.”
51% of Idaho WWAMI graduates return to Idaho to practice
Huttash’s classmate Adam Kappmeyer is excited to spend part of his summer in the RUOP. He hopes to become either a rural physician in Idaho or a specialist who travels among rural areas.
“Whatever I end up doing, I want to end up in a rural community,” he said.
Kappmeyer, 25, graduated from Logos High School in Moscow and studied biology at UI. To prepare himself to go into medicine, he volunteered at Gritman Medical Center, watched surgeries and shadowed doctors.
“Especially in a rural community like this, I could tell just based on the trust patients have in their providers, these are true life-changing conversations that physicians are having with their patients,” he said. “I wanted to be part of that.”
Preparing Students for Next Steps
When Huttash and Kappmeyer graduate from WWAMI in 2019, their medical educations will be far from over. They’ll spend three to eight years in residency and fellowship programs, refining their skills and learning their areas of specialization.
Finding a residency is a difficult and competitive process for medical students. Students apply to dozens of residencies that fit their interests, and residencies select students that match their needs. In 2015, more than 1,000 U.S. medical students didn’t match with a residency. And in 2017, there will be more medical school graduates than residency sites.
This is a crisis in medical education, Seegmiller said — but one WWAMI students are prepared to overcome.
“What helps you in matching is, one, you’re a stellar student; two, you come from a top medical school; and three, you’ve already had high-quality clinical experience,” he said. “UW School of Medicine gives Idaho WWAMI students all of those things.”
Idaho is home to five University of Washington-affiliated residency programs with rotational locations in communities statewide, but WWAMI graduates can elect to go anywhere in the region or nation to complete their residency.
Dr. Bryn Parker, a 2011 graduate of Idaho WWAMI, spent her fourth year of medical school traveling the country for residency interviews. When “match day” came, she learned she’d been matched with her first choice, a family practice residency at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle. The residency takes only 11 people per year.
“They like keeping WWAMI students in the Seattle family practice programs because they know we’re well trained,” Parker said.
After three years of residency, Parker accepted a fellowship in Tacoma in the nation’s only program to combine high-risk obstetrics with the broad-spectrum medical skills needed to serve rural areas.
All this was in preparation to come back to Idaho.
Dedicated to Serving Idaho
Parker, 31, grew up in Elk City, Idaho. She graduated from Grangeville High School and headed to UI to study fisheries.
During her sophomore year, she was looking for volunteer opportunities. She had an interest in medicine because her grandfather and uncle were doctors, so she took an EMT class through the Moscow Volunteer Fire Department, and soon joined the department’s ambulance company.
“I ended up hanging out in the ER a bunch,” she said. “I started thinking, ‘This suits me.’”
One of Parker’s ambulance colleagues was married to a family practice doctor at Moscow Family Medicine, and Parker decided to take the opportunity to job-shadow. For the next two years, she spent one day a week with Dr. Helen Shearer.
Growing up, Parker only ever knew family doctors, but seeing one in action was new. As she watched Shearer navigate days packed with patient interactions, she began to get a feel for general medicine’s intensity — and its necessity.
One day, Parker observed as Shearer conducted a regular physical for a patient, who revealed a traumatic event in the course of their conversation.
“Helen stayed in there for another 30 minutes, not doing anything medical, just being present. It was wildly powerful,” Parker said. “It was just so poignant in terms of, wow, this is family medicine.”
It was the moment that made Parker sure she wanted to be a physician. By then, she’d switched her major to psychology. She graduated from UI in 2007 and entered Idaho WWAMI.
Now, Parker has come full circle: In September 2015, she became Moscow Family Medicine’s newest family practice doctor.
She’s in good company. At Moscow Family Medicine, four other physicians also graduated from Idaho WWAMI, including Dr. Francis Spain of the first-ever Idaho WWAMI class.
Since the program started, 51 percent of Idaho’s WWAMI graduates have returned to Idaho. Add in WWAMI’s partner states, and 75 percent of all WWAMI graduates have practiced in Idaho at some point in their career.
Returning to Idaho was an easy decision, Parker said.
24% of all Idaho WWAMI grads (1976-2015) specialized in family medicine
For one, it made financial sense. Idaho’s Rural Physician Incentive Program provides up to $100,000 toward physicians’ student loans if they serve in federally designated Health Professional Shortage Areas, which covers most of Idaho. The program focuses on areas of particular need: primary care, family practice, internal medicine and pediatrics. This program, along with Idaho WWAMI’s comparatively low tuition, play a large role in drawing graduates back to Idaho, Seegmiller said.
Parker now has hundreds of patients of her own. She’ll soon start teaching continuing medical education courses for her old ambulance crew, alongside Shearer, her mentor. She loves the variety of small-town family practice, helping college students build healthy foundations for their lives and working with retirees. As of February she’s delivered 12 babies in Moscow.
And she’s seen patients who haven’t seen a doctor in 20 years, who are struggling, who need the personal attention a primary-care doctor like Parker can give.
“There’s a huge need, so I kind of feel a responsibility to come back,” she said. “It’s where I’m from.”
Article by Tara Roberts, University Communications and Marketing