KAHALA, Hawaii (KHON2) — Hawaii needs about 800 doctors, according to the Hawaii Physician Workforce Assessment Report.

The biggest shortage is in primary care specialties, but one way to help is by bringing local students back to the Islands. A Hawaii Pacific Health program aims to do just that.

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Dr. Justin Young enrolled in Hawaii Pacific Health’s Summer Student Research Program in 2002. The SSRP — launched in the 1980s — was aimed at bringing local college students in for medical research and to make connections with Island experts.

It is now being revamped to focus on bringing Hawaii students back home to practice medicine.

“It’s about visiting the hospital facilities to see where you work and really being in the community,” Dr. Young said.

I think the program in general just teaches people to be better doctors, so overall helps healthcare to have people be more compassionate and really know what our healthcare system is about.”

Dr. Justin Young, Straub Sports Medicine physician

Take Dylan Lawton, a student at the John A. Burns School of Medicine and 2020 alum of the SSRP.

His time there — especially during the pandemic — opened his eyes to taking care of older generations.

“Making sure that they’re accounted for, for their emotional and mental health was really, really special to me and it did spark my current interest in potentially pursuing a career in geriatrics or medicine tailored to our Kupuna population here,” Lawton said.

Hawaii Pacific Health’s SSRP is great for local kids to make connections in the medical field, but one doctor of family medicine said more is needed to address Hawaii’s doctor shortage.

“One is we have to make it a better place to practice. So Hawaii is a beautiful place, everybody loves Hawaii, but our pay is low and our cost of living is high,” said Dr. Kelley Withy, University of Hawaii Department of Family Medicine and Community Health professor.

Dr. Withy is working with Gov. Josh Green to make insurance companies pay more, which would result in fewer out-of-pocket payments from primary care providers in the office and patients in the pharmacy.

She added that medical schools and residency programs will need to at least double in size.

“So if we train double or triple how many we train and then we make it a better place to practice so we don’t lose anybody and we keep the ones we train, we will eventually get to where we need to be, which is 800 more,” Dr. Withy said.

The program is open to college sophomores and up, with preference given to current Hawaii residents. Applications are due on Monday, Jan. 16.

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