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Spokane Becomes Top Choice For UW Medical Students at Gonzaga

Gonzaga University

Spokane has become a hot spot for medical education in the last 10 years. That’s when the University of Washington decided — with the encouragement of Spokane civic leaders — to send 20 first-year medical students to study in the Lilac City. A lot has happened since then: the U — in a partnership with Gonzaga — has tripled the number of students it sends here and, of course, WSU has now has its own medical school with first- and second-year students based in Spokane.

Full disclosure: I worked at WSU for seven years and participated in some of the work to expand medical education. And so I was interested in a couple of recent developments. One is that one of the major players has recently retired and we’ll talk with him in a few minutes about the growth of doctor education here.

But first, in the early years, when the University of Washington sent its first few classes over the mountains, its Washington applicants had the choice to spend their first year in Seattle, in Pullman — at WSU, or Spokane, as part of its five-state WWAMI medical school. WWAMI stands for Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. Not surprisingly, most of them wanted to stay in Seattle. A few of those sent to Spokane came up with a name to describe their plight; they were WWAMI’d.

Now, several years later, the U and Gonzaga report that all of the 60 of the first-year students who will be in Spokane this fall chose Spokane. Dr. Darryl Potyk is here to talk about that. He is the associate dean for eastern Washington for the UW School of Medicine and the chief of medical education for the UW-GU Regional Health Partnership.

Darryl Potyk: “We’ve always longed for the day when we would say we have too many students here. You have to go to Seattle. Finally that day has arrived. I don’t think it’s any one factor that has led to that, but a confluence of factors. One is our new curriculum that we launched two years ago. One is our move over to Gonzaga. And then, three, I think is the maturity of Spokane and what a great place Spokane — it always has been a great place — but is becoming even better and better recognized. Those things all come together for us.”

Doug: “So, for those folks who don’t know medical school. It’s a four-year curriculum and, traditionally, the first two years are spent in classrooms and the last two years are spent in clinical settings. So how is the University of Washington’s program different than the traditional?”

Darryl Potyk: “Two or three years ago we launched this new curriculum and condensed that first pre-clinical phase — and we don’t call it that anymore, we call it a foundations phase now — we condensed it into 18 months. That 18-month period is very highly integrated. The students begin to learn what it’s going to be like to be a doctor from day one. And rather than learning just basic sciences, they’re learning basic sciences as they apply to the clinical world. That is a highly different curriculum than the traditional curriculum. The other part of it that’s different is, back in the old days, if you will, when I was a medical student, we sat in a classroom for eight hours a day and were lectured to. The part that we’re doing differently is limiting classroom time to about four hours a day and most of that time is spent with active learning with a flipped classroom, so the students prepare ahead of time and clarify their points rather than being lectured to. It’s an active environment; it’s very team-based.”

Doug: “Are you teaching different things than when you were in medical school 30 years ago?”

Darryl Potyk: “Oh absolutely. At this point in time, the world is changing so fast. The medical world and biology are changing so very quickly. I don’t think anything is changing as fast at this point in time. The things that we’re teaching now are much different. The genetics that we learned 30 years ago is much different than what we’re teaching today. Everything’s different; the immunology is different, the applications are all different. It’s an exciting time.”

Doug: “In terms of choosing medical students, I was always blown away by the different ranges of life experience that a lot of these students had. They’d gone on missions overseas. They’d done two years of research. Do you think medical students are generally better prepared than they were in your day?”

Darryl Potyk: “I think they’re better prepared in terms of overall life skills. I think the admissions process has become more holistic. Rather than just looking at a grade point average and an M-CAT score, we’re looking at the totality of what you’ve done in your life. How have you gotten here? What is your drive to be a physician and what does that look like? I think the holistic approach is really lended itself to a different kind of student and, hopefully, a better doctor.”

Doug: “You’d referred to the M-CAT. The M-CAT is the qualifying test for medical school. I remember when you had 20 students. That group became really tight over that first year. Has expanding to 60 students changed that dynamic?”

Darryl Potyk: “We were concerned about that as we went from 20 to 60, but I think it’s been really interesting, partly due to the active learning environment, the small group setting, which really lends itself to that cohesive group. The other thing we have that’s unique to the University of Washington is a college system within the university. So we have students assigned to a mentor and those are different than their active learning groups. So we’re really cross-pollinating that cohort of students so they get to know each other really well in different settings. To their credit, there’s an amazing esprit de corps among our students. That’s really a credit to them more than us.”

Doug: “WSU is focusing on students from Washington with an emphasis on rural medicine. Is there an emphasis for the University of Washington’s medical students in Spokane?”

Darryl Potyk: “We have the same emphasis, actually. The entire class that is coming in to Spokane is entirely Washington state residents. Because of our reputation, in terms of primary care and our reputation in rural medicine, most of the students have expressed an interest in that. We can’t control what they do ultimately what we want them to choose, but our class is made up primarily of, like I said, Washington students those who have an interest in primary care and rural medicine.”

Doug: “Your students have an opportunity to go to some of those other WWAMI states: Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho, and do some of their clinical work.”

Darryl Potyk: “Yeah, I think that’s one of the great things about the University of Washington. Once they get done with that foundational phase of classroom learning, they can really customize their clinical learning experiences to meet their needs or their learning styles. They can go out and spend most of their third year in a rural environment. They can do different things in different states. They can go around the whole five-state region or they can be in the research environment in Seattle. So it really lends itself well to students driving their own education.”

Dr. Darryl Potyk is the associate dean for eastern Washington for the UW School of Medicine and the chief of medical education for the UW-GU Regional Health Partnership.