Loss of 2 key specialists at Hilo hospital underscores scope of doctors shortage

Critical doctor shortage on Big Island just got worse

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Amid a growing doctor shortage in the islands, Big Island dialysis patients recently had to go off-island for emergency treatment.

Hilo Medical Center lost two key doctors, but says it’s working hard to recruit physicians and keep patients at home.

The situation has Hilo dialysis patient Francine Pearson worried about her fellow patients.

“The doctor shortage is dire here on the Big Island and to have hospital administration make it worse by driving out the only two doctors who work with dialysis patients is horrifying.” she said, in a text.

The Hilo Medical Center said the doctors’ shortage is a multi-faceted problem.

“Hilo Medical Center tries very hard to maintain the specialists that we have and also attract specialists that we need into our community,” said Elena Cebatu, director of of public affairs at the hospital.

Hilo Medical Center says its only full-time nephrologist, a kidney specialist, suddenly stopped providing care in mid-April. For two weeks, 30 patients were sent to either Oahu or Maui for emergency outpatient care. The only vascular surgeon also resigned in May.

The hospital said while it can't comment on provider business arrangements, both doctors left voluntarily. It's now recruiting for a new vascular surgeon and using interventional radiologists to provide coverage for certain vascular procedures.

As for nephrology, it’s not hiring another full-time kidney doctor, but it is shoring up its nephrology services with traveling doctors and tele-medicine.

Dr. Jim Ireland, a professor at the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine and a nephrologist, said the loss of two doctors is tough for neighbor island rural communities, especially with the state’s high rate of kidney disease.

“If you don’t have enough people doing the work, it gets harder and harder to do that or patients have to travel farther and farther distance to get that care,” he said.

The solution to the shortage, he believes, is right here at home.

"I think the key to keeping physicians in Hawaii is to train them in Hawaii," he said.

Hilo Medical Center says it has had recent successes in recruiting other specialists in cardiology, orthopedics and OB/GYN and will be graduating 10 family medicine doctors in three years.

Copyright 2019 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved.