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The Health Workforce Summit at the Hilton Hawaiian Village.

Faced with a growing doctor shortage in the state, the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa is taking the lead to make Hawaiʻi‘s health care future brighter. UH Mānoa’s John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM) brought together nearly 1,000 people to the Hawaiʻi Pacific Basin Area Health Education Center’s (AHEC) Health Workforce Summit, hosted in person at the Hilton Hawaiian Village and virtually online, to create actionable ideas to curb the state’s shortage of physicians.

According to the Hawaiʻi Physician Workforce Assessment Report, Hawaiʻi has a severe physician shortage. Recent statistics show the deficit is at least 750 full-time providers, with primary care specialties being the greatest need.

While JABSOM is expanding its training and residency footprint on the neighbor islands, summit organizers looked to expand and enhance those ideas.

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Teresa Schiff-Elfalan listens to ways Hawaiʻi can bring more doctors to the state.

“I think Dean Jerris Hedges was very clear and his effort to include more students in medical training is wonderful,” said family medicine doctor Kelly Withy, who also serves as AHEC’s director. “His scholarships for a third of the class, his pushing the training out to the neighbor islands so we can actually expand the number of students trained is awesome.”

Withy praised the efforts of JABSOM leadership but understands the medical school can only do so much.

“You can train a million students, but if you can’t keep one, you’re no better off than you were, so what we’re talking about is how we can help people start practices,” she said. “We are brainstorming ways to keep them happy, employed and, most importantly, keep them here.”

With more than 600 attending in-person and 300 more checking in virtually from the neighbor islands, the U.S. continent and beyond, the workforce summit brought various ideas, including increasing reimbursement while decreasing paperwork hassles and other red-tape for physicians and other medical providers.

Homes for medical providers

An incentivization concept implemented in the Bay Area intrigued JABSOM Associate Professor Teresa Schiff-Elfalan, a young family medicine doctor in Hawaiʻi.

“Something interesting to me was when a panelist mentioned that doctors in other areas are getting help with their mortgages to the tune of a $600,000, interest-free loan, to buy a house,” Schiff-Elfalan said.

Withy envisions a day when Hawaiʻi would adopt that model and expand on it. “Theoretically, if you move here and buy a house, you’re more likely to stay. Helping physicians and all healthcare providers purchase homes helps us retain them,” she said.

Before returning to Hawaiʻi, Schiff-Elfalan did her training in Contra Costa County, California. She says this model would make Hawaiʻi more competitive and attractive to young medical professionals.

Related story: Bills address physician workforce shortage, especially on neighbor islands

“That would be huge,” she said. “As young people coming out of training—wanting to start a family and buying a home are two of the next steps we think about. Some of our primary care mentors here are telling us that they could work for many years and still not be able to afford a home in Hawaiʻi. That makes it too easy for medical students and residents to want to look elsewhere.”

The state recognizes the physician shortage is an imminent concern for all who live and visit the islands.

This year, Gov. David Ige signed two bills totaling more than $6 million to support JABSOM’s efforts to retain local doctors and recruit more to the neighbor islands.

Withy and Schiff-Elfalan said the conference ended on a positive note with many potential paths to explore.

“We’ve got the Hawaii Medical Association ready to help us. We could have small group dinners to brainstorm, to talk to investors,” Withy said, listing other options. “There’s state property, and maybe we could build on it?”

For more go to the JABSOM website.

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