By Leland Kim
HILO, Hawaii (KHNL) -- The island of Hawaii is the fastest growing in our state. It saw a fifteen percent jump in population just in the past six years. But the number of doctors is decreasing to dangerous levels and creating a real medical crisis.
Henry Williams is a patient at Hilo Medical Center. The 81-year-old had to drive two hours from his home to get to the hospital.
"In Waimea, they don't have the same two doctors that they have here," he said. "And that's a long ways to go."
He is one of many on the Big Island feeling the effects of a doctor shortage.
"Unfortunately, we all get older, and we're not seeing an influx of new physicians as well as not seeing an influx of ancillary staff services," said Dr. Lynda Dolan, a family medicine doctor and the chief of staff at Hilo Medical Center.
High cost of living, medical school debt, and reduced reimbursements have forced doctors to go elsewhere.
Hawaii has one of the lowest reimbursement rates in the country, about 20 percent less than the national average. So as doctors continue to leave, the Hilo side is on the verge of a medical crisis.
"It'll fall apart," said Dr. Dolan. "If in ten years, as our physician population is aging in terms of the primary care physicians, they can't keep up. So, most of the physicians in town are not accepting new patients."
Eventually they're going to want to retire, either because their work load and burden are too high, and they're tired or just done," she added. "And those patients will go out to a pool to a 'no doctor' pool as we're calling it."
This means a growing population of patients without primary care doctors.
"Hence if they're not managed appropriately with a primary basic care, they're going to hit the ER, the urgent care facilities, and get sporadic, not coordinated care, which then increases cost, increases wait time, increases over-utilization of emergency services."
The news is even more grim for those who have serious medical issues. Right now, patients must fly out for most cardiac procedures.
Dr. William Sammond, an interventional cardiologist, hopes to change that, so heart attack victims can be treated right in Hilo.
"So that when you can provide that service acutely, you can reduce that time and provide that care more readily," he said. "It's a big plus. In certain cases, it may make a huge difference; can make the difference between life and death in some."
If a solution to the doctor crisis isn't found soon, it could also mean a life and death situation for health care on the Big Island.