When Dr. Steve Gerstner sees patients in Billings, he’s often also teaching medical students from as far away as Alaska and Washington.
Every year, nearly 90 third- and fourth-year medical students in the WWAMI (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho) program arrive in Billings for training in local hospitals and clinics. Each student spends two to six weeks in these rotations.
WWAMI has been training medical students in Billings for 47 years. Coordinated by the Eastern Montana Area Health Education Center at RiverStone Health, this program relies on the participation of more than 150 Billings area physicians and support staff. Students rotate in many specialties, including anesthesiology, dermatology, orthopedics, palliative care, radiology, urology, family medicine, internal medicine, obstetrics, psychiatry, pediatrics and surgery.
Billings WWAMI teaching physicians practice at Billings Clinic, St. Vincent Healthcare, RiverStone Health and affiliated care sites. In addition to these physician teachers, their administrative staff members provide essential assistance to the program.
While in Billings, WWAMI students live in housing provided through the University of Washington. They become part of the community and have the opportunity to see the attractions of our city and the great outdoors of Yellowstone River country.
The time and expertise Billings physicians provide to the WWAMI students pay off for our community and region. These teaching physicians are making an investment in our future medical workforce.
“The WWAMI program has been a great benefit to Billings and to Montana,” says Gerstner, a Billings Clinic physician who has been teaching WWAMI third-year medical students for 31 years and serving as site coordinator for 20 years. “Many of the WWAMI students are accepted into the Billings Clinic Internal Medicine Residency and the Montana Family Medicine Residency, both in Billings. These bright Montana students often become our local physicians and partners. It’s a natural progression.”
WWAMI is a cooperative program with the University of Washington School of Medicine. It gives students residing in the five-state area of the northwestern United States access to high-quality, cost-effective medical education.
The program works for these vast, sparsely populated states by allowing them to share existing facilities and personnel in universities and communities in the WWAMI states. For example, Montana WWAMI students complete their first eighteen months of medical school at Montana State University’s WWAMI campus in Bozeman.
The State of Montana provides financial support for 30 qualified Montana residents per class year. These Montana medical students must meet educational standards and other admission criteria required of all University of Washington medical students.
The three medical residency programs based in Billings provide critical graduate education to new doctors who have just graduated from medical school. The local WWAMI program helps assure that medical school students from Montana and the other northwestern states have solid Montana training earlier in their professional education.
Those brief WWAMI rotations in Billings have a lasting impact. About 60 WWAMI graduates currently practice medicine in the Billings region.
Emma Fulton, a third-year WWAMI student from Billings, says she wants to return to her hometown as a doctor: “My training in Billings has solidified my desire to one day return and practice here alongside the remarkable teachers with whom I’ve had the good fortune of working.”
Mary P. Helgeson, Eastern Montana AHEC director, can be reached at 406-247-3297