Private medical school might solve Montana's physician shortage

Twelve Montana counties are without a general practitioner.
Twelve Montana counties are without a general practitioner. | File photo

Montana has a major medical problem.

Twelve counties in the state have no general practitioners and 750 of the state’s 2,349 physicians are expected to retire in the next decade. With Montana already 49th in the country in per capita residencies, few doctors are lining up to replace those expected to retire. 

In short, Montana needs doctors.

Most doctors practice in the area they did their residencies, so state Sen. Llew Jones (R-Conrad) supports the creation of a private, for-profit medical school.

“It matters naught to the 12 counties that have no primary care physician whether the medical school is private or public. It matters naught to Montana students whether the medical school that offers in-state preference for admissions is public or private,” Jones told Higher Education Tribune.

Several private organizations have expressed interest in a medical school in Montana, including the Rice University Foundation, Manipal Education and the Burrell Group. No public medical school is presently being discussed and Jones doubts there is the political will on the part of Montana taxpayers to operate a new public medical school.

But if action isn’t taken to secure a deal with one of these private organizations quickly, Jones said the opportunity might be seized by another state and a similar chance may not present itself in time to help stave off the physician shortage crisis in Montana.

Jones also has worked to expand the slots available to Montana students in the WWAMI (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho) Regional Medical Education program at the University of Washington. Although as many as 40 percent of WWAMI graduates return to Montana, many of those graduates are specialists who, while essential, are not helping deal with the state’s general practitioner shortage.

“I see this school, and the continuation of WWAMI as part of a solution to meet the critical doctor shortage,” Jones said. “I am pro-WWAMI, but both can coexist.”