Crisis at Hilo Medical Center puts new spotlight on staffing, bed shortages at Hawaii hospitals

Staff say problems have only gotten worse over the past several years.
Published: Sep. 26, 2022 at 5:00 PM HST|Updated: Sep. 26, 2022 at 5:07 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The patient care crisis at Hilo Medical Center is drawing the attention of lawmakers and helping spur a broader conversation about staffing and bed shortages at hospitals statewide.

On Tuesday, state Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chair Jarrett Keohokalole. will tour the Hawaii Island facility to get a first hand look at the overcrowding and staffing shortages.

Staff say problems have only gotten worse over the past several years.

“It’s the fact that we’re so full. We cannot care for all of our patients,” said Hilo Medical Center Intensive Care Unit Nurse Ashley Mae.

Hospital CEO Dan Brinkman says his staff is caring for more patients now than they were at the peak of the coronavirus Delta surge. He believes a big part of the solution would be to add more beds.

“We’ve done a lot of the prep work here,” said Brinkman. “Those plans are ready to go.”


Last year, funding for the hospital’s bed expansion project set aside by the state Legislature fell through.

It’s a $50 million ask that must be made again this session ― and Hilo’s far from the only hospital in need.

“They need help on Kauai. They need help on Maui. On both sides of the Big Island,” said Keohokalole.

He’s one of about a half dozen lawmakers who’ve been in recent communication with the hospital in an effort to address its healthcare crisis.

The senator says the pandemic put a spotlight on staffing and infrastructure challenges at all of Hawaii’s hospitals. It’s a problem he believes should be a top priority at the Legislature.

“Now that we know, we can’t ignore it. And we need to make sure that we’re paying attention and prioritizing it appropriately,” said Keohokalole.

Right now, hospitals are short more than 700 nurses statewide.

Hilo Medical Center has it the worst with 75 full-time positions that need to be filled. That makes the facility heavily dependent on traveling caregivers from the mainland.

“There’s no shortage of young people in Hawaii that would love to be nurses,” said Brinkman.

But there is also a shortage of nursing instructors.

Of the more than 1,500 qualified applicants who tried to pursue to nursing at universities across Hawaii last year, more than half never made it to the classroom because space is so limited.

In addition to looking at ways to hire more faculty, Keohokalole said incentives should also be part of the conversation.

“We have in the past looked at incentives for professionals who become mentors or take on apprentices. That’s a dialogue that we need to take on with the facilities who are all desperately short of people right now.”

Officials at Hilo Medical Center say the hospital will bring on an additional 41 full-time nurses next spring through its Nurse Residency Program.

That’s expected to cut down the number of travelers needed at the hospital by about half.