Hawaii facing shortage of doctors

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The JABSOM Area Health Education Center (AHEC) keeps track of physician stats, thanks to support from the legislature, which allows a portion of physician license renewal fees to fund the studies and encourage workforce solutions. AHEC is dedicated to encouraging students to become doctors by assisting with state funded loan repayment, increased rural training, advertising positions for free, help for students, Welcome Wagon program and  continuing education.

"Our population is growing and aging, and this compounds the situation. We need to train more, recruit more and make it the best place to practice in the country," said UH professor Kelley Withy, who conducts the annual study, adding that Hawaii Pacific Health, the parent company of Wilcox Health on Kauai, has made a "concerted effort" to recruit and retain more doctors.

Even though there are more than 9,000 licensed physicians, only 3,551 are practicing in the islands. The latest data show that the shortage of primary care doctors has grown to 282.5 from 228 a year ago. That's largely due to the state's high cost of living and lower pay for medical providers compared with the mainland, among other social issues such as quality of schools, Withy added.

"We still have no neurosurgeon. Any head or spinal trauma is immediately medevaced to Oahu," said Dr. Edward Gutteling, an orthopedic surgeon in Hilo. "We haven't had a neurosurgeon in 15 years or more. One of our top cardiologists died; one cardiologist actually had a heart attack. We have hard time keeping them here. But the bottom line is, Why is it so hard to keep doctors here of any specialization? We work too hard and get paid too little, compounded by rules and regulations, which have become increasingly onerous."

The health care industry for years has struggled to recruit doctors, particularly to rural communities on the neighbor islands.

"Many have given up practices to work for hospitals, and many private practices have closed because of that," Gutteling said. "Other doctors that are coming out are scared of private practices. They all want to get jobs and have a paycheck, so private practice is dying."

Gutteling added that the state should invest in an emergency medevac system and designated referral center that has the capability to take patients around the clock.

"The community as a whole thinks they can go to Hilo Medical Center and they will be taken care of. That is their assumption but it's not true," he said. "They pretend to have a trauma system. If we are short of specialists … we should put people on a helicopter or plane and get them out of here, instead of pretending that the community hospitals on the neighbor islands can take care of anybody at all times, because they can't and they never will because we don't have the population to support it."

For more detailed information about AHEC and the programs available to assist healthcare professionals visit http://www.ahec.hawaii.edu/

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