We must support Alaska’s future doctors. COVID-19 shows us why.

We are witnessing the dramatic impacts the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic is having on our physicians. Dr. LaMaster Soule made a compelling argument in her commentary on the important federal policies which can support our future doctors, but our state also has opportunities to support a home-grown, Alaskan physician workforce.

Alaska has long suffered from a physician shortage, with vacancy rates significantly higher for rural and tribal health providers. The ability of health providers to recruit and retain dedicated physicians is critical to ensuring patients across Alaska have access to stable and appropriate health care. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this all the more difficult. This is what makes the WWAMI School of Medical Education Program, and the Legislature’s ongoing support of it, so important.

Operating for 50 years, the WWAMI Program has consistently provided some of the best and brightest Alaskans access to the medical education and training necessary for them to return home and serve their communities, helping to address our state’s shortage of physicians. The program effectively serves as Alaska’s medical school and physician recruitment program, bringing non-Alaska WWAMI graduates here to provide needed care. Taken together, 60% of Alaskan WWAMI graduates return to Alaska to practice, and that goes up to more than 70% when we consider all WWAMI graduates, with more than 50% of those choosing to practice in primary care. WWAMI graduates also account for almost 14% of Alaska’s licensed physicians, making it the largest contributing medical school to Alaska’s physician workforce.

WWAMI is also an important economic contributor to the state. Not only do returning medical students add to the economy, the WWAMI program spends more than 70% of the state’s contributions right here in Alaska. And that is not just focused in urban centers, as there are over 20 sites currently offering residency rotations for WWAMI students across the state from Utqiaġvik to Unalaska to Ketchikan.

All Alaskans benefit from this program. The Legislature must act to ensure the WWAMI Program is funded. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us the importance of having a robust Alaskan physician workforce. This program represents one of the most efficient and cost-effective tools Alaska has available to invest in our health delivery system and the health of our people. To protect the health of all Alaskans, we must support WWAMI and those Alaskan students who will protect us all one day.

Winn Davis is a policy analyst for the Alaska Native Health Board.

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