A first-year medical student from rural Grangeville, where his family runs a generations-old cattle business, Lee Spencer had already earned two degrees at the University of Idaho when he began volunteering as an EMT in his hometown. The experience of providing patient care in a small town proved defining.
“When I started doing patient care as an EMT,” Spencer said, “I found there was nothing that I’d ever experienced that compares to that level of fulfillment, especially when you know the people. From that point on, it wasn’t even really a decision about whether I was going to go to medical school or not, I just kind of knew this is what I was going to do.”
Taking the advice of the medical professionals with whom he worked, Spencer applied for admission into the WWAMI program, a partnership between five states – Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho – through the University of Washington School of Medicine. The WWAMI program is consistently ranked near the very top of all medical education programs in the country for primary care and for rural medicine.
The WWAMI program allows students from participating states to attend medical school at the University of Washington’s in-state tuition rate. The in-state tuition fee is itself substantial – at $28,000 per year before including the costs of room, board and living expenses, students typically graduate with still-not inconsiderable debt – but it proved important incentive for Spencer, as it does for many aspiring medical professionals.
“It was an easy decision for me, especially as an Idaho student,” Spencer noted. “You pay half as much, and you get to go to one of the best medical schools in the world. It wasn’t a hard decision.”
The Spencer family’s cattle ranch was started by Lee’s great grandfather in the 1920s. Those small-town roots have spurred his commitment to practice medicine in a rural setting. He has noticed the gap in availability of medical services in rural communities, and is aware of the transformative benefits of preventative care offered by family physicians in those places.
“I think training rural doctors is an investment in the future,” Spencer said. “It’d be hard to find a place where your money can have more return than investing in rural, family physicians. You can prevent so many health problems for people, making it possible for kids to have successful, productive lives, and stopping health problems before they start.”
As a participant in the Targeted Rural Underserved Track (TRUST) of WWAMI, Spencer will spend his second year in Seattle at UW, along with all other medical students program-wide in his cohort, and then complete his third- and fourth-year rotations in the field. Spencer plans to return to Idaho for at least some of that training, and to make his home state the setting for a career in rural medicine.
“It’s where the need is,” Spencer said. “Idaho has one of the lowest physician-to-population ratios in the country, especially in the rural areas. So that’s definitely where I’d like to be. There is such a shortage of good primary care physicians. Plus, I won't have to dig any postholes or build any fences.”