HONOLULU — Hawaii’s doctor shortage has worsened during the coronavirus pandemic, and experts say the chances of a rebound hinge on the state’s ability to help doctors stay in business.
More than 400 Hawaii doctors say COVID-19 has forced them to close their practices, reduce hours or switch to telehealth services, Hawaii Public Radio reported Tuesday.
That brings the state’s overall doctor shortage to more than 1,000, according to the latest Hawaii Physician Workforce Assessment released by the University of Hawaii’s 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,” said Dr. Kelley Withy, director of the Hawaii and Pacific Basin Area Health Education Center at the Honolulu medical school.
“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 said.
The shortage is greater in the communities beyond Oahu, said Dr. Elizabeth Ann Ignacio, an intervention radiologist on Maui.
“It’s alarming, it’s frightening, especially for us here on the neighbor islands, to see our numbers are getting worse,” Ignacio said. “Now we’re at the 40-50 percent shortage mark. We knew we were going to get there eventually. But now, this is crisis.”
Hawaii has more than 10,000 licensed doctors but only about 3,200 are active, Ignacio said.
“It’s not just about revenues and making a good living, it really is about being able to give quality health care at a good cost,” Ignacio said.
Expanding Hawaii’s medical school and postgraduate residency programs are solutions, but the effect would not be seen for seven to 10 years and isn’t tenable because of the expense, Withy said.
So, he said, the state must recruit doctors.
“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,” Withy said, noting that the program was recently cut from the state budget.