Hawaii Doctor Shortage Persists But More Training Programs Could Help

Dec 26, 2019

Hawaii is gaining doctors, but not enough to keep up with the patient demand, according to a University of Hawaii report on the state’s continuing physician shortage.

The university report says 152 doctors left the state and 91 retired in 2019.

In addition, 120 doctors decreased their work time. Dr. Kelley Withy, the report's principal investigator, said this could indicate that the physicians are considering retiring.

The doctor population in Hawaii skews older compared to the rest of the country. About half of the doctors in the state are over 55 years old.

Withy said 23% of the state's physicians are already 65 years old, and are still practicing. "So we know we’re not going to lose half our workforce, but we really need to be working to get the next generation here.”

Although 2019 saw an increase in physicians leaving the state, Withy said the number of departing doctors has stayed relatively stable.

Hawaii recorded an overall net gain of 47 doctors, but the state's aging population continues to increase demand for physicians.

According to Withy, developing more training programs is among the most effective ways to keep doctors in Hawaii. She shared an example from the Big Island.

“Hawaii Island Family Medicine Residency program is training family medicine physicians in Hilo. Now that island has more family medicine physicians than other areas per capita,” she said. “If you train somewhere you probably stay.”

In highlighting the report, the university said students who complete UH training in Hawaii are 80% more likely to remain in the state.

Queen’s Medical Center’s cardiology fellowship is another example of training that has helped address the problem.

“We used to have a very high shortage of cardiologists,” Withy said. “Now we don’t hear about the shortage of cardiologists as much.”

Because it is so difficult to recruit and retain doctors in Hawaii, Withy suggests the state focus on expanding training.

One of the obstacles is the limited class sizes at the UH John A. Burns School of Medicine.

“The dean is trying to increase the class size, but we are pretty much maxed out on Oahu,” Withy said. “It takes a lot of time and energy to train doctors because, of course, they have to work with patients.”

Because of this obstacle, UH will be asking the state Legislature for money to fund a training site on Maui.

“They could do most of their work on Maui,” she said. “I think that’s just really exciting.”