Idaho WWAMI making a difference

·4 min read

Dec. 7—After nearly 10 years of working as a critical care nurse in Idaho's emergency rooms and intensive care units, Bryan Jones decided he wanted to do something else to advance his career.

"As a nurse, I'd have physicians that I worked with encouraging me to go to medical school and I think they recognized my desire to learn," Jones said. "Thanks to the support of my wife and to the support of the University of Idaho, that dream became possible."

Jones grew up in Malad, a small farming town of about 2,000 people south of Pocatello. There, doctors often visit from outside the town, and people living there have to travel to see a specialist.

"Not too many people from Malad go to medical school," he said. "I didn't think I was smart enough to do medical school. Both my wife and I are first generation college students."

In August 2020, with a bachelor's in nursing from Idaho State University and a decade of experience under his belt, he joined the Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho Regional Medical Education Program known as WWAMI.

The medical school, partially funded by state dollars, produces the most rural physicians for the state. It was established in 1972 as part of the University of Washington School of Medicine.

Every applicant who joins the Idaho branch of the program is an Idaho resident, according to regional Director Jeff Seegmiller. Next month will mark the program's 50th anniversary in the partnership.

"It's pretty exciting that we've had a medical school for so long in our state and it happens to be a top medical school," Seegmiller. "This year the University of Washington School of Medicine was ranked as the nation's No. 1 medical school in Idaho for family medicine and primary care. We've won this award about 22 or 23 times."

On Monday, the University of Idaho hosted a ribbon cutting to celebrate the unveiling of the largest medical classroom in the WWAMI building on its Moscow campus. The 2,200 square foot classroom was made possible through donations from Norco.

In 2019, the company contributed $500,000 to building renovations and an endowment for medical students.

The Employees of Norco Idaho WWAMI Scholarship will help financially support students in perpetuity. This is the first year students will be awarded scholarships from the endowment.

"Before this facility was built, our students didn't have a home base to learn, study and socialize in," he said. "Idaho WWAMI has always produced world-class physicians, but through charitable contributions like Norco's, we are able to do so in world-class facilities."

While the state covers roughly half the cost of tuition for UI's program, students still pay about $40,000 per year to attend.

Jones said scholarships have helped him manage the financial load of attending medical school. He's been especially grateful to have 24-hour access to the building, even during the pandemic.

"Coming to school with four kids is a Herculean task and the faculty here have just become an extension of our family," Jones said. "They even have like a little nursery here for kids to come so they can spend time with us while we're studying."

Jim Kissler, Norco board chair and retired CEO, said the gift was directed towards a need for healthcare professionals in the state.

Nearly every corner of Idaho has a shortage of primary care physicians, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. The state ranks 49th in the country for the number of active primary care physicians overall.

Meanwhile, Idaho is one of the fastest growing states in the country.

"We can't do enough," Kissler said. "Attending class at UI and getting clinical experiences in their home state helps keep our future physicians here, where we need them."

Rhegan McGregor, a student in the program, said she's developed a passion for rural medicine and hopes to practice in a rural setting someday. She wants to build close relationships with her future patients.

"As a child growing up, I was privileged to have those familiar faces within the community being the ones taking care of you in times where it was stressful," McGregor said.

But she noted rural healthcare is not without its challenges. With the physician shortage and limited resources, doctors in rural areas often have to travel to meet their patients, or vice versa.

She believes she can give back to the community and use her education at Idaho WWAMI to improve other people's lives.

"You couldn't ask for a better medical school, in my opinion," she said. "They have great faculty and it's in my home state. It's where I want to return to work someday."

Palermo can be reached at apalermo@dnews.com or on Twitter @apalermotweets.