A proposed family medicine rural residency program at Pullman Regional Hospital unveiled Tuesday is aimed at easing a physician shortage on the Palouse.

The program would start with four residents from Washington State University’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine in Spokane as early as 2022 if it can get approval from the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education.

The council will make sure the program meets numerous requirements, such as if it has secured enough money to cover start-up costs and ongoing expenses.

Details about the effort to start the program were shared Tuesday evening at Pullman Regional Hospital’s annual Health Innovation Summit in a presentation titled “At the Intersection of Education and Healthcare — A Rural Residency Program.” The summit took place at the Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories Event Center.

“I think this is going to be a fantastic opportunity for us,” said Pullman Mayor Glenn Johnson.

How quickly the initiative moves forward depends on a number of variables, including fundraising efforts of the hospital and WSU.

Although none of Tuesday’s speakers shared a budget for the initiative, typically residency programs cost $200,000 per resident per year, said Daryll DeWald, chancellor of WSU Spokane and vice president of WSU Health Sciences.

The three-year residency program in Pullman would have 12 residents when it was at full capacity. Those residents would have completed at least four years of medical school.

So far, organizers have landed $750,000 in federal money from the Health Resources & Services Administration. A portion of a $5.5 million contribution from Premera Blue Cross over four years will go to the Pullman program as well.

Medicare and Medicaid provide some reimbursement, but it’s lower for critical access hospitals like Pullman in rural areas than in big cities, and not nearly enough to cover expenses, said Dr. Jonathan R. Espenschied, associate dean of graduate medical education and continuing medical education at the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine.

“It’s expensive to start a residency (program) and extremely challenging to maintain,” he said.

Pullman Regional Hospital hopes to cover some of the costs partly through a $29 million bond on the Nov. 5 ballot for an expansion, which would have space for a separate clinic with exam rooms for the residents and areas for their instructors and supervising physicians. The separate clinic is a requirement for accreditation.

If backers of the residency program are successful, they said training physicians in Pullman will have a number of benefits, such as improving access to doctors, which would improve outcomes for patients facing diseases like diabetes and cancer.

A national study found that family medicine physicians are more likely to practice within 100 miles of where they train, said hospital spokeswoman Megan Guido in an email.

But there are only 13 physician residencies and fellowships of any kind in eastern Washington, compared with 162 in western Washington, which may be contributing to a physician shortage.

“All areas of primary care in Pullman and on the Palouse are actively recruiting for additional physicians,” she said.

Part of how successful a residency program would be as a recruiting tool for physicians will depend on the community. The residents will be evaluating their experience in Pullman, looking at some factors not directly related to health care, such as how affordable housing is and how good the schools are for their children.

“This is a big commitment on their part as well,” Espenschied said.

Elaine Williams may be contacted at ewilliam@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2261.

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