Hawaiʻi Doctor Shortage Worsens Under Pandemic

Jan 5, 2021

Hawaiʻi’s doctor shortage is getting worse under the pandemic, and the chances of a rebound hinge on the state’s ability to help Hawaiʻi doctors stay in business.

More than 400 Hawaiʻi doctors say COVID-19 forced them to close their practices, reduce their hours, or switch to telehealth. This brings the state’s overall doctor shortage to more than 1,000, according to the latest Hawaiʻi Physician Workforce Assessment recently released by the UH John A. Burns School of Medicine.

“So what it means is that if you need a doctor urgently, you might die because you might not be able to access that,” says Dr. Kelley Withy, “And if you need a specialist chronically to help you manage your condition, you may have to travel to get to that specialist and it may be by air travel, which of course, is especially difficult right now.”

Withy has been monitoring the state’s physician workforce for more than 10 years as director of the Hawaiʻi and Pacific Basin Area Health Education Center at the medical school.

The shortage is even greater on the neighbor islands, says Dr. Elizabeth Ann Ignacio.

“It’s alarming, it’s frightening, especially for us here on the neighbor islands to see our numbers are getting worse,” says Ignacio, “Now we’re at the 40-50 percent shortage mark. We knew we were going to get there eventually. But now, this is crisis. This is a definition of a crisis.”

Ignacio works as an intervention radiologist on Maui. She says it often surprises her colleagues to know that Hawaiʻi has more than 10,000 licensed physicians but only about 3,200 are active.

“It’s not just about like revenues and making a good living, it really is about being able to give quality health care at a good cost,” says Igancio, “And we’re not, we’re not business people, we’ve never been trained to focus on that, but now we’re thrust into these discussions and, you know, do the best we can.”

Withy says expanding Hawaiʻi’s medical school and post-graduate residency programs are ideal solutions, but the impacts wouldn’t kick in for another seven to 10 years.

“If we kept everybody, of course. But that's not going to happen because it's very expensive. So until we can do that, we need to recruit, you know, a thousand physicians,” says Withy, “One way we do that is with the state loan repayment program, where the federal government provides half of the dollars and the state provides half of the dollars.”

But Withy says the program was recently cut from the state budget leaving her to scramble for funding to keep Hawaiʻi doctors in practice.

2021 Hawaii Physician Workforce Assessment by HPR News on Scribd