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WWAMI program

Julie Stewart, a student at the University of Washington Medical School, examines Kody Nelson, 9 months, in the Pedatric Partnership office at St. Peter’s Hospital in Helena.

The University of Wyoming’s medical education programming plans to allow students to spend more time in Laramie and stay in line with accreditation standards.

The medical education program at UW is known as WWAMI. Since 1997, Wyoming has been part of a cooperative program with the University of Washington, as well as the states of Alaska, Montana and Idaho, aimed at providing medical education in northwestern states without independent medical schools. WWAMI is an acronym for the participating entities.

Since joining the cooperative, WWAMI students have spent their first year at the UW campus in Laramie. In the second year, they go to the University of Washington in Seattle. But the program’s curriculum is changing and calls for students to spend the second year — each “year” of the program is actually closer to about nine months — in their home states, said Marivern Easton, acting director of WWAMI medical education.

“It was 2014 when it was determined that this would be the new model,” she said.

The WWAMI facilities on UW’s Laramie campus, however, could not accommodate both first- and second-year students simultaneously, Easton said. UW is currently the only institution in the cooperative without the facilities to accommodate the change. Because medical school accreditation is dependent on having uniform curriculum, she said, Wyoming’s program ran the risk of losing its accreditation.

“Medical schools’ accreditation is such you can’t be doing something different in your regional program,” Easton said. “The onus is on the (University of Washington School of Medicine) to show what’s happening in those regions, and that the students are getting the same education.”

WWAMI’s classroom and cadaver lab are on the fourth floor of the Health Sciences building. Plans are underway to convert the cadaver lab into a second classroom for second-year students and renovate space in the Physical Sciences building into a new cadaver lab.

UW’s Board of Trustees approved plans for the project during its Feb. 15 meeting. While funds for the project are coming from a combination of Medical Education and College of Health Sciences sources, it required the trustees’ approval to move forward. Deficits for the construction budget in the first two years of the project — scheduled for completion in December 2018 — caused some UW trustees to question whether it was appropriate to approve.

“I’m uncomfortable beginning a construction project based upon a negative budget,” said trustee John McKinley.

The $1.5 million budget currently shows a nearly $200,000 deficit in the first year of construction that would be reduced to just less than $60,000 in the second year.

But College of Health Sciences Dean Joseph Steiner said there are students entering the program, which would generate sufficient revenue to cover the shortfall.

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“While there is a deficit on paper, the reality is the income will come in,” Steiner said during the Feb. 15 meeting. “It will cover the deficit as we go into the second year of construction.”

Ultimately, UW President Laurie Nichols said she had “no problem” with the plan and vouched for the current funding model.

“I’m really comfortable with it,” Nichols said. “I know we’ll have a full WWAMI class every year. It’s not a risky situation.”

The trustees voted unanimously to approve the plan.

Easton said approving the plan now was the right thing to do.

“It costs less to educate (students) here than it would to send the money to Seattle for tuition and fees,” she said.

More ambitious plans were already scaled back because of the state’s economic situation, Easton said. Going forward with the $1.5 million project was the minimum to keep Wyoming’s program part of the collective.

“President Nichols encouraged us, ‘Just give me the bare bones,’” Easton said. “‘What’s the absolute minimum you need to meet accreditation standards and have a solid, quality program that would allow you to keep students here for the second year?’”

Just less than 200 students have graduated through the WWAMI program in its 20 years in Wyoming. Nearly 73 percent return to practice in the Cowboy State. Easton said WWAMI is a “success story” for Wyoming.

“It’s a workforce program that’s really about finding persons in our state who are interested in medicine,” she said. “The goal is to find providers for the state of Wyoming. We know that the most successful programs are the ones where you grow your own.”

Follow managing editor Joshua Wolfson on Twitter @joshwolfson

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