Maybe it had to be an interim president of Idaho State University to bring up the idea of creating a full-fledged medical school at Idaho State University. The last president, Richard Bowen, never broached the idea – publicly at least – and if anyone ever has, it’s gone unremarked. Which would seem unlikely.
Interim President Michael Gallagher has nothing to lose by floating the idea, which on the surface and over the long haul seems not unreasonable. Of Idaho’s higher ed institutions, ISU is the one most closely allied with medical training.
Gallagher’s specific language was a little more diplomatic than that: “ISU is charged as the lead institution in health and support sciences,” he said. “We are willing to work with the board and the Idaho Medical Association, plus other institutions including the Legislature, to help define what the future of health and medical education should look like in Idaho.” But his meaning was clear enough.
There is a little glitch: Idaho has been funding its colleges and universities thinner and thinner in recent years, and the colleges and universities have been in general paying more attention to what programs might go away, than to massive new expansions. (State Senator Gary Schroeder, whose district includes the University of Idaho, estimated more than a decade ago that if the decline in share of state funding going to higher education continues, it will reach zero in the 2030s – and the state is still on that track.) .
You can also take apart the argument about Idaho’s relative lack of physicians. Idahoans who want medical training can currently get it through a state program, an alliance with Washington, Alaska and Montana called WAMI, which sets aside seats from the smaller states at the medical school at the University of Washington. The program has worked pretty well and has delivered new physicians over the years back to Idaho.
In Idaho, Boise and the other larger population centers do not notably lack for medical practitioners; the gaps are in the smaller communities and rural areas, owing to the economics of rural areas. A new medical school will not fix that.
Leaving that aside, the idea of an Idaho medical school sounds like something the state should pursue at some point. Pocatello does have two hospitals, and one of them (probably the one located next to the ISU campus) could probably be developed into a teaching hospital.
But be warned: It ain’t cheap. Solid medical training these days is astoundingly specialized – no such things as just training a corps of gp’s – and that means a lot of staff, expensive teachers and even more expensive equipment.
How expensive? Let’s pull a few numbers out from other institutions.
Consider the Brown Medical School in Rhode Island (which has a population comparable to Idaho’s). It’s not entirely a fair comparison, since Brown is Ivy League. But the total medical school enrollment of 326 doesn’t seem stratospheric: You can’t run a medical school for a couple of dozen students. Now, how many faculty members are needed to teach them? The Brown number – 2,105 in grand total – is probably misleading, because most of them are volunteer or adjunct or work in the hospital. But do you need more teachers than students? Apparently.
The Brown med school budget is $54.3 million. It does have a $167 million endowment fund (not currently present in Idaho) to help out, but clearly the school is not an inexpensive proposition.
Idaho’s – when the day eventually comes, as it may, that the state does set up its own med school – probably won’t be on an Ivy League level. But the cost is apt to run into the tens of millions anyway (especially since it would include startup costs). The bottom line is that Idaho is probably going to have to grow a lot more before this dream becomes a reality.
No harm though, in someone like Gallagher starting to dream, and triggering others to do it too.
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