Hawaii’s doctor shortage has worsened after COVID-19 pandemic

Coronavirus

HONOLULU (KHON2) — One of the most essential jobs right now is healthcare, particularly doctors, but Hawaii’s doctor shortage has gotten worse as a result of the pandemic.

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A study out of the John A. Burns School of Medicine said, the state is about 1,000 physician positions short when compared to other continental U.S. states, and COVID-19 played a part.

“Things are getting much worse,” said Dr. Kelley Withy. “Part of this is due to COVID because physicians are retiring if they feel at risk with COVID. Part of it is because we just don’t have the positions and the salaries to support physicians.”

The doctor shortage rose on all islands. Oahu is now at 475 positions short, Hawaii at 287, Maui at 185 and Kauai at 61.

Withy said, more doctors in rural areas are retiring — worsening the problem.

“If you need a doctor right away, and you’re in an area without that kind of doctor, you’re in big trouble. And it could lead to increase deaths, increased morbidity, people not able to get the services they need,” said Withy.

While Oahu is most in need of the doctors, Hawaii Island is the highest hit by the shortage if population is taken into account with 53%, followed by Maui, Kauai and Oahu.

Dr. Michelle Mitchell — who is a family physician and owns her own practice in Hilo — said she has felt the impact of the shortages.

“We are all overworked before we entered a pandemic. And now we’re extremely overworked.”

Dr. Michelle Mitchell, Hilo Family Physician

She said, many specialty doctors closed down under the pandemic, leaving primary physicians left to do the extra work. Additional costs for cleaning supplies have also cut into revenue, which she said is already tight.

“My side gig is, actually I do tele-health for a mainland company where I make approximately three times that I make here in Hilo,” said Mitchell. “It seems weird to me, that we as physicians have to have a second job to support our primary job.”

That is why she said many of her friends in healthcare have chosen to move to the mainland. She said, something needs to be done to bring more doctors to the islands.

“I wish we had ways to get more doctors for you, we’ve been trying for so long ,and it’s disheartening that so many members of my community aren’t getting the care that they need,” said Mitchell.

Withy said, Hawaii is number 50 out of 51 states — including Washington D.C. — when it comes to physician pay and Hawaii has the highest cost of living. She said, local doctor’s offices also have to pay an additional tax with Medicare and Medicaid.

“We need to improve the pay, we need to have some kind of symptom incentives such as loan repayment. We need to make it a very comfortable place to come,” said Withy.

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