Spokane Journal of Business

New digs, new approach in medical education

While settling in at Gonzaga, UW med school employs streamlined curriculum

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-—Kevin Blocker
Gonzaga University human physiology professor Dan McCann, in green shirt at laptop, and other faculty members prepare for the new school year. University of Washington medical students are taking classes on the GU campus for the first time.

A new venue for University of Washington School of Medicine students in Spokane comes with a new approach to training future physicians. 

At the University of Washington’s School of Medicine program on the Gonzaga University campus, gone are the days of long and arduous hours spent in class during those first two years of medical school. They’ve been replaced with more hands-on learning. 

“We’re starting our second year with the new curriculum, and I’m super excited about it,” says Boise-based Dr. Suzanne Allen, the vice dean for academic, rural, and regional affairs at the UW School of Medicine.

Gonzaga is the University of Washington’s newest academic partner and became an affiliate in the Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, Idaho (WWAMI) regional medical education program in February.

Last year, UW’s med school introduced a new curriculum where students started learning clinical skills and patient care in their first year, Allen says.

With the new curriculum in place, classroom time has been reduced to four hours a day for four days a week. Typically, first-year and second-year med students spend at least eight hours a day for five days a week in class.

Now, time previously spent in lectures has been rerouted to clinical work and other active hands-on learning approaches, Allen says.

The first two years of medical school classes have been shortened to 18 months from 24 months. Allen says students are expected to continue their research and devote more time to determining the area of practice they ultimately want to pursue for the final six months of their second year.

“I’m actually a little bit jealous of their med school training,” says Allen, who also maintains a practice in Boise and sees patients at least one day a week. 

This month marks the first time that UW medical students have taken courses on Gonzaga’s campus under a joint agreement. Sixty first-year medical students joined 40 second-year students to start the 2016-17 academic year.

For decades, UW taught medical students in Eastern Washington with Washington State University as its WWAMI partner. UW ended its relationship with WSU, however, after the Pullman-based university committed to opening its own medical school in Spokane. 

The American Medical Association selected the UW medical school to be part of its Accelerating Change in Medical Education Consortium, a group of 32 medical schools the AMA says it believes are equipped to handle rapid changes in medicine and health care.

The medical schools each received $75,000 over a three-period to advance the AMA’s work aimed at transforming undergraduate medical education to align itself better with the 21st century health care system, the AMA said in a press release announcing the schools that were selected.

Through a competitive grant process, the schools were chosen from among 170 eligible U.S. medical schools by a national advisory panel that sought proposals that would significantly redesign medical education.

“Practicing is very different today,” Allen says. “This generation of doctors truly has to be life-long learners because changes in medicine and technology are more accelerated than ever before.”

Allen says her patients are more tech savvy and conscientious about their health.

“This group of med school students will come to the end of their careers in 2050. It sounds like a long way away, but it really isn’t. What is medicine even going to look like then?” Allen says.

At Gonzaga, work crews updated Schoenberg Center, which houses the UW med school training. The marketing and branding of the program is still a work in progress, says Dr. William Sayres, the Spokane-based assistant dean at the UW School of Medicine.

Sayres is one of five assistant deans assigned to five different first-year med school regional sites through the UW School of Medicine.

The partnership between the two schools has been referred to most commonly as the UW-GU Regional Health Partnership, says Sayres, who is also a family physician here at Group Health Cooperative.

Roughly 40 primary-care physicians in Spokane have volunteered to mentor medical students. As of last August, most medical students had been assigned to a Spokane-area facility to begin their clinical work and observations, Allen says.

She says she’s particularly excited about the outpatient clinic work that will be offered in the new curriculum.

“We—and when I say we, I mean med schools in general—don’t always do a great job of making doctors feel comfortable in an outpatient clinical setting,” Allen says. “Being in the outpatient clinics more now gives students a better opportunity to develop a rapport with patients.”

The University of Washington, in the early 1970s, formed the original WAMI states—Wyoming didn’t join until 1996—to help stem the shortage of primary-care physicians, particularly in rural areas.

The program has been recognized by the Association of American Medical Colleges with the Outstanding Community Service Award, and has been identified by U.S. News & World Report for the past 23 years as one of the nation’s top medical schools for training in primary-care, family medicine and rural medicine.

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