Healthcare insurance provider Premera has announced an investment of $10.5 million in grants over four years to Washington State University’s (WSU) community-based medical school and Empire Health Foundation to improve access to healthcare for eastern Washington’s rural communities. The money will fund new training programs in the hopes that new physicians and clinicians will remain in areas with a noticeable lack of healthcare options. While certain rural areas have hospitals, they might have a physician assistant but not a full-time physician.
“Residents in those communities have to drive (to another hospital) in difficult circumstances,” said Empire Health Foundation Board Chair Jeffery Bell. “There is a definite workforce piece of this that is so critical for these hospitals to have.” Started in 2008, the eastern Washington-based foundation has grown from its initial endowment of $45 million to $75 million.
That lack of access is perhaps reflected in a National Rural Health Association 2017 study that concluded “economic factors, cultural and social differences, educational shortcomings, lack of recognition by legislators and the sheer isolation of living in remote areas all conspire to create health care disparities and impede rural Americans in their struggle to lead normal, healthy lives.” Nationwide, there are only 39.8 physicians per 100,000 people in rural areas, compared to 53.3 physicians per 100,000 in urban areas.
At a July 31 press conference, Premera CEO and President Jeff Roe said $5.5 million will go WSU’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine to help boost residency opportunities in underserved areas; all the college’s students are Washington residents.
“There aren’t enough physicians and clinicians to support the populations,” Roe said. “Quality is undermined in the process.”
According to WSU President Kirk Schulz, there are 170 residency training programs in Washington, but only 12 are located east of the Cascades. While the grant money is to add to those eastside programs, WSU College of Medicine Founding Dean Dr. John Tomkowiak said they estimate 43 percent of physicians remain in the state where they are trained. In some cases, up to 70 percent of them stay within 100 miles of where they finish their residency.
“Where people train, they will hopefully remain, and the numbers suggest that this is the case,” Roe said.
The other $5 million grant funding will help expand capital facilities in the right locations. Tomkowiak said “you have to have enough…patients to make sure they (medical students) get a full training environment that will make them awesome clinicians. In rural areas that’s more challenging.”