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Solutions in the Works for Hawai‘i’s Doctor Shortage

June 7, 2019, 3:15 PM HST
* Updated June 20, 2:17 PM
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Hawaii Pacific Health Queen’s Weinman Scholarship Recipients, class of 2022. PC: JABSOM

As revealed in Big Island Now’s article, “Why the Doctor Shortage Continues in Hawai‘i,” the entire state is in the midst of a severe doctor shortage.

The John A. Burns School of Medicine, the state’s only medical school, proposes solutions to the crisis.

JABSOM is committed to helping reduce the physician shortage. It has been recruiting more broadly and is now even considering business degrees, engineering degrees, and candidates with emergency and rescue service experience.

Efforts are also being made to financially motivate more students to want to attend medical school.

According to Dean Jerris Hedges,” For JABSOM, the Average Debt of Indebted 2018 Graduates was $146,637 versus the mean national public school indebtedness of $188,758.”

Hawaii Pacific Health Queen’s Weinman Scholarships for one-third of 2022 class, awarded July 2018. PC: JABSOM Courtesy Photo

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Charles Peebles (one of seven new physicians—Big Island Natives—who graduated from JABSOM in 2019) said, “With regards to attracting physicians to Hawai‘i or encouraging them to stay, one major issue is money. This is not just a problem for doctors but for other important occupations like teaching as well—disclosure: my wonderful wife is a teacher. Physicians in Hawai‘i have the lowest average starting monthly salary and second lowest average annual wage.”

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“Anecdotally, I have known physicians who would love to work in Hawai‘i, but have a hard time sacrificing the benefits that a higher wage and lower cost of living would bring their families,” Dr. Peebles concluded.

In addition to lower debt, many of them receive scholarships. In fact, a recent class saw among one-third of them receiving a full ride. Hawai‘i Pacific Health has contributed $1.5 million to help with tuition at JABSOM.

HPH gave $750,000 to five incoming freshman in 2018 and again in 2019. In addition, legislators are working to furnish tax credits and loan repayment programs in exchange for a two-year commitment to working in areas of need around the state.

JABSOM Commencement 2019: Nicolaus Hoggan (R) will become an ER doctor on the Big Island. Behind him is Dr. Michael Brigoli of Hilo, who will become a cardiologist. PC: Vina Cristobal, JABSOM

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However, Dean Hedges said, “JABSOM receives some state funding, but volunteer [non-compensated] faculty members outnumber compensated faculty members by more than four to one. Unfortunately, with the usual physician compensation in Hawai‘i below mainland levels, those physicians—who are also volunteer educators—have limited time-availability to teach while maintaining a full-time practice.

He went on to explain: “Where we can offer community support that will cover the tuition of JABSOM students, we can attach a requirement to practice in Hawai‘i following completion of training (or be responsible for the tuition plus interest). Unfortunately, this year we received community support covering full tuition for only about 20% of the entering class. Were the state or Neighbor Island counties to establish tuition support programs, we could extend this opportunity to other incoming students and enhance our post-graduate retention of medical students.”

Another example of improvements exists in Hilo, which is growing its residency program to serve patients primary care needs (which makes up nearly half of the doctor shortage problem). University Health Partners of Hawai‘i even opened an OBGYN clinic for patients in Hilo.

JABSOM Biosciences Building in Kaka‘ako PC: JABSOM Courtesy Photo

For high school graduates who want to learn more about this growing career field need, Dean Hedges said, “There are multiple ‘pipeline’ programs overseen by JABSOM faculty that are specifically focused on that initiative. A number of these are sponsored by federal programs aimed at bringing under-represented and/or disadvantaged populations into health careers. One of the major programs on Hawai‘i Island is through the Hawai‘i Area Health Education Center. Dr. Kelley Withy heads up the program for JABSOM. Lisa Rantz of the Hilo Medical Center is the island-based lead for the program.”

“Helping those in Hawai‘i enjoy life through the gift of health is one of the most soul-satisfying endeavors you can undertake,” the dean concluded. “We can change the world through our actions. Take action to help those here in Hawai‘i and collectively we will make the world better.”

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