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Growing up in a tiny Newcastle, WY, home to about 3,000 people, I’m sensitive to the dynamics that keep rural communities alive. In my town, we had three longtime family physicians who had served the community for decades, as had their nurses. They were omnipresent, and well thought of as community leaders. They inspired me, a kid who was definitely not related to any physicians, to go to medical school.

Today, as a palliative care physician with more than 25 years of experience practicing in Idaho, I’m well aware of the doctor shortage facing our state. During the first half of my career at the Family Medicine Residency of Idaho, where I helped new doctors find meaningful experiences in our rural training tracks, I saw firsthand the value of Idaho WWAMI.

This innovative partnership supplies our state’s physician pipeline, allowing Idaho kids to stay here for the entirety of their education. It offsets the dismal statistic that Idaho ranks 49th for physicians per capita. Operated on the University of Idaho campus in Moscow in partnership with the University of Washington School of Medicine, Idaho WWAMI allows Gem State students to become doctors here at home, for the far more affordable price of in-state tuition.

Practicing medicine in a rural state like Idaho can be isolating at times, particularly for clinicians in rural areas. The Idaho WWAMI alumni and “preceptor” network – rural clinic sites around the state that train medical students with practicing physicians as part of the curriculum – creates a sense of community and opens the lines of communication that benefit doctors and patients. It improves access to specialists, strengthens our referral network, and Idaho WWAMI students are a key part of creating this environment.

For nearly 50 years, Idaho WWAMI has served the state of Idaho well. Anyone who has spent time in rural places knows the economic and social impact of having a quality hospital or clinic in town is huge. Just like towns need quality public schools to have a sustainable business and tax base, communities need quality medical care to thrive. I think about communities like McCall, Grangeville, Preston, and Orofino, all of which are stronger because of their healthcare infrastructure – of which WWAMI students are a part.

After I left FMRI to practice at St. Luke's, I joined the Idaho WWAMI admissions committee. There I’ve seen how exceptional Idaho WWAMI medical students really are. More than seeing practicing medicine as a way to earn a good living, these young future doctors view it as a calling to public service – a way to give back to the state that has offered them so much.

I’m continually impressed with Idaho WWAMI students’ empathy, and their ability to connect and communicate and investment in the community around them. This prepares them well for careers in medicine, where it’s essential to be able to work well together and relate to patients and families.

My hope is that for the next 50 years, Idaho WWAMI continues to be an affordable option for students struggling with student debt. No one should graduate medical school owing as much as though they had bought a home. I hope the State of Idaho and our legislature will continue to invest in the growth and development of Idaho’s medical school infrastructure throughout the state, including rural training sites and residency spots.

Dr. Pete Kozisek lives in Boise and is a member of Idaho WWAMI’s advisory board. WWAMI stands for the states served by the UW School of Medicine: Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho.

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