Washington State University’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine has been awarded a $750,000 grant to lay the groundwork for a rural residency program in the state.

University officials say the grant, awarded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Service Administration, will be primarily devoted to startup costs for the program.

Medical residency training is required to practice as a physician in the United States. After earning a medical degree, med students are required to complete a residency under the direct supervision of a practicing physician.

Associate Dean of Graduate Medical Education Jonathan Espenschied said among the first of these programs will be a family medicine residency at Pullman Regional Hospital, though they hope to expand the program to include residencies at hospitals throughout the state — particularly those in rural and underserved areas. The goal, he said, is to have at least one residency program in place by 2021 — in time for WSU’s first class of undergraduate medical students to apply.

“The HRSA award is specifically for program development and exploration … it doesn’t go to any sustainability after the program starts,” Espenschied said. “It’s really to support developing the infrastructure before the program even starts.”

Beyond startup, medical school spokeswoman Christina VerHeul said the cost for operationalizing medical residency programs is likely to be in the millions. She said WSU will investigate grant and private funding opportunities, as well as work with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to identify where federal funding might come into play.

VerHeul said much of the reason the school is hoping to build residencies in rural and underserved areas is to ensure there is a pipeline directing physicians to practice in those regions.

“Evidence tells us that if people go to medical school in the state and end up training in that state, they usually end up practicing in that specific area too,” Espenschied said. “So as we’re developing rural and underserved programs, we’re hoping that a lot of the trainees will end up practicing in those areas.”

VerHeul said about 43 percent of medical students open practices in the state they graduate. She said that number jumps to 70 percent if the student does both their undergraduate and graduate work — including residencies — in that state.

However, she said, more than 90 percent of medical residency programs in Washington are located west of the Cascades. While the hope is that providing medical training in regions on the east side of the state will help increase the physician presence there, she said it is just one of what is likely to be a wide range of solutions deployed to bolster healthcare access in rural and underserved areas.

“We are working really hard to ensure that our medical students have residency programs to start applying to that are connected to WSU,” VerHeul said. “There are other residency programs throughout the state, it’s true, but our focus is really on making sure that there are opportunities for students in rural and underserved areas — and that areas that have not had this kind of residency access are going to have that kind of access.”

Scott Jackson can be reached at (208) 883-4636, or by email to sjackson@dnews.com.

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