BILLINGS - Montana State University officials will ask the Montana Board of Regents to greatly expand the state's participation in a program that educates medical students with the hope of keeping more doctors in state.
The regents, who are meeting in Bozeman Thursday and Friday, will hear a proposal to expand WWAMI, a partnership among Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, Idaho and the University of Washington in Seattle. They are not expected to act on the proposal yet.
Since it began in 1973, 20 Montana students have been admitted each year. They spend their first year of medical study at MSU in Bozeman, and then they go to UW for a year before spending their third and fourth years at clinical clerkships in Montana hospitals.
MSU hopes to double the number of incoming WWAMI students, and to keep students in MSU for their second year of schooling, while also taking some televideo classes from UW's School of Medicine.
Joe Fedock, MSU provost, said he expects the program would be paid for by a mix of private money and increases in WWAMI tuition, along with federal and state support.
Another source of funding might be asking WWAMI students to enroll in the National Health Service Corps Scholarship Program. The program would pay for medical schooling on the condition that students serve at least four years in areas where physicians are needed, including rural Montana.
Fedock said MSU's proposal to have students complete their medical education in Montana reflects a national trend toward decentralizing medical education.
Idaho and eastern Washington have similar proposals in the works. Because medical students studying in a particular state are more likely to stay and practice there after they graduate, the hope is that the expansion could lead to more doctors available in Montana.
Jay Erickson, a Whitefish physician and a dean of the WWAMI program in Montana, said the state has 20 third-year medical students in clinical clerkships on family medicine, but there is room for a dozen more. In some more specialize fields, students may have to do their clinicals in Seattle.
Roxanne Fahrenwald, a physician who directs the family residency program in Billings, said she supports backing WWAMI and family practice residency programs because of the need for primary care physicians in the state.