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Campaign urges use of primary care doctors

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Hawaii County wants to wipe out medical homelessness across the island.

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Hawaii County wants to wipe out medical homelessness across the island.

“There’s this thing that we call the patient-centered medical home, where you have a doctor, you have other providers working with the doctor who can take care of the patient, and you have the patient, who also has responsibility in that home,” explained Beth Dykstra, an economic development specialist with the county’s Research and Development Department.

Part of an individual patient’s responsibility is to find a doctor and see that doctor regularly, she said, preventing future trips to the emergency room and other more expensive care providers. Across the state, one in 10 visits to the emergency room is preventable, according to a 2013 report by the Hawaii Health Information Corporation.

“There may be things going on with you that you’re not aware of, and doctors can catch that early and inexpensively,” she said.

Increasing preventive care, it has been estimated, could save the nation billions in health care expenses. It’s one of the central ideas behind President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act overhaul of the country’s healthcare system. And yet, 21 percent of Hawaii Island residents 18 or older — nearly 40,000 people — do not currently have a regular doctor, according to 2011 data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

So now, the county is backing Dykstra with a $35,000 public awareness and education campaign aimed at convincing area residents to take control and build their own medical homes — starting by finding and visiting a primary care physician.

“How to make that happen is another question,” she added.

The island has long wrestled with a physician shortage, with older doctors retiring and younger doctors opting to set up practices in larger, more lucrative markets as they wrestle with daunting medical school debts. Many doctors on the island aren’t taking new patients, she admitted. But, many still are.

“The best thing I can point people to is if you do have insurance, look for their ‘Find a Doc’ feature. But then you do have to call,” Dykstra said.

She is working to compile a list of doctors who are taking patients, and she hopes to post it near the end of the year to the county’s new website, gotdoc.org.

The site presents health statistics and encouragement for isle residents who need a push to go see a primary care physician. It also has the tools for social media warriors to get involved, with plenty of catchy memes and pledge badges, so people can exert peer pressure on holdouts.

“Got Doc Because kale doesn’t solve all my problems,” reads one downloadable card.

“Got Doc Because it makes mom happy,” reads another.

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Ultimately, Dykstra says she’d like to see the word spread that despite an ongoing health care crisis, people can take responsibility for their health and do something to help bring down costs. “I’d love to see tomorrow a healthy and robust Hawaii County,” she said. “But right now, any improvement we can make is good.”

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart @hawaiitribune-herald.com.