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Strengthening Hawai‘i’s Communities
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A Generous Gift Ensures a Healthier Hawai‘i

Finding a way to keep medical professionals in the Islands

A medical professional, wearing a facemask, sits with a patient. Her eyes show that she is smiling.

It’s no secret to anyone who lives on Hawai‘i Island that its medical community has been chronically understaffed for decades. “We’ve got shortages across the board—not just with physicians, but also with nurses and physician assistants,” says Lisa Rantz, executive director of the Hilo Medical Center Foundation. “We hear things anecdotally, that folks can’t get in to see a doctor. They’re waiting up to six months for referrals to specialists.”

Complex factors contribute to Hawai‘i’s ongoing doctor shortage, says Rantz, but one factor is simple: money. “Healthcare professionals enter the workforce with anywhere from $250,000 to $500,000 in student loans,” says Rantz. “Being almost half a million dollars in debt, they can’t afford to live here, pay down their loans and hope to purchase a house or raise a family.” As a result, aspiring Hawai‘i medical professionals often pursue careers off-island, where living costs are lower.

A big-hearted Big Island construction contractor wanted to address this problem. The late Bruce Hansen donated $2.4 million to Hawai‘i Community Foundation to create the Hawai‘i Island Access to Medical Care Fund. The fund, which will exist in perpetuity, is designed to support homegrown medical providers. Recipients must be graduates of Hawai‘i Island high schools and commit to practicing on-island for a minimum of five years.

The fund provides flexible financial support, says Rantz, who helps choose recipients. “They can get equipment that they need to be able to use in their practice, or even put a down payment on a house.” Rantz also helps debt-laden healthcare workers qualify for state and federal loan repayment programs. “We can leverage and expand our dollars,” she says.

The charitable fund can help employers, too. Hiring new physicians can be prohibitively expensive. One healthcare provider Rantz works with recently borrowed $67,000 just to cover onboarding costs. “It can take two years before a healthcare provider is fully credentialed with insurance and the reimbursement money starts to come in,” says Rantz. The Hawai‘i Island Access to Medical Care Fund can bridge that gap.

Since its inception two years ago, the fund has helped three local physicians launch their practice: Waiakea High school graduate Dr. Charles Okamura, who specializes in internal medicine, now works at Hilo Medical Center. Dr. Will Chapple works at Paniolo Medical Center in Kamuela. Dr. Chad Ahia will join a private practice in Hilo after completing his family medicine residency.

Thanks to a donor’s generosity, the Hawai‘i Island Access to Medical Care Fund is setting Hawai‘i up for a healthier future.

Visit hawaiicommunityfoundation.org/investing-community-wellbeing to learn more.

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