Medical assistant program offers classroom lessons with hands-on skills

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald From left, Valerie Snowdon and Xyan Ancheta learn how to give an intermuscular injection Saturday during a medical assistant course at the North Hawaii Education and Research Center in Honokaa.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Kenya Ridzon, left, helps Jaimeliene Takaki, center, and Melissa Boaz learn how to give an intermuscular injection using an orange Saturday during a medical assistant course at the North Hawaii Education and Research Center in Honokaa.

Medical assistant students at the North Hawaii Education and Research Center in Honokaa were getting hands-on experience Saturday.

While some worked with medical dummies on the tables before lunch, another woman in scrubs took the blood pressure of a partner.


Saturday was a skills lab for a medical assistant course now being led by Island CPR at NHERC, a satellite location of the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

“There were discussions since 2017 about how to have some kind of medical assistant program happening here in North Hawaii because our health care partners had said there’s a need for it and a shortage of certain health care positions,” said NHERC Director Kei-Lin Cerf.

According to a news release from UH-Hilo, the course was developed in partnership with NHERC, Alu Like, Island CPR, Hamakua-Kohala Health and Bay Clinic’s Keaau Family Health and Dental Center.

Island CPR provides the training and NHERC contributes marketing, public relations and technology support.

“We wanted to be industry and employer informed,” Cerf said. “When putting the course together, in the past we were looking to hire a lecturer for the program, but when we also did a scan for who else was offering the program and where students might go instead of coming to our program, we found … Island CPR.”

After reaching out to Island CPR’s owner, Cerf said it made more sense to partner with the agency to provide the course work, than it was to find another lecturer and to compete.

Island CPR manager Crystal Hale said the company has been teaching the medical assistant course for two years “and the reason that we teach this course is because there’s a need. There is a large island wide and statewide need for medical assistants.”

Now offered for the first time at NHERC, the program offers a hybrid format and distance learning opportunities for students who live elsewhere on the island.

“We are a small company that has an office in Kona and Hilo and that isn’t necessarily the most ideal for people who live in Ka‘u or Honokaa,” Hale said.

When NHERC approached Island CPR about hosting the company to teach the curriculum, Hale said it was “such a wonderful experience” because they have interest from people from all over the island.

Alan Ku, NHERC’s testing and technology support specialist said that during the course the instructor is on site, and more than a dozen of the current cohort’s participants are in class and four participate by video conference on lecture days.

The four students who participate via video make the trek to Honokaa for the skills labs.

“It’s very intensive so the students can change their earning potential as fast as possible,” Cerf said. “… Island CPR’s really good in that they built these skill days so students are getting hands-on experiences. That’s the hybrid that we really wanted to understand how to do — how do you teach something that is a combination of hands-on and lecture-based and could you design it in a way where the students weren’t missing out on an experience because they were seeing it all through the computer. And I think Island CPR did a good job (with) that.”

To better facilitate the distance learning, NHERC purchased a 360-degree video conferencing camera that can see the entire room at once and also focuses on whoever is speaking.

Ku said it’s like someone from afar and a person in the room are “able to have this collaborative process, versus just hearing a voice in the back of the room while still looking at the teacher.”

“We don’t want the technology and the distance to put them at a disadvantage or for them to have a fraction of the experience that an in-person student would have,” Cerf said.

Allison Loy lives in Hawaiian Paradise Park and is one of program’s long-distance learners.

“It makes it a lot easier, obviously, because I’m so far away,” she said. “I wouldn’t have done it if they didn’t have the online option because coming here for four classes isn’t so bad, but coming for 10 would have just been miserable.”

Being such a rural island, Loy said she’s happy these kind of courses are even offered “because there is limited opportunity on the island for advancing your career, outside of the university.”

Loy attends UH-Hilo, where she was just accepted into the nursing program.

“This is going to help me (because) I’m trying to find a weekend job, then I can network and I can have that experience so that when I graduate, it won’t all be shocking,” she said.

Loy said the remote learning opportunity is also beneficial because she has a young son.

“I can semi-watch him or at least snuggle with him on breaks. … I’ve been kind of just a student and a stay-at-home mom so I haven’t been away from him for more than a few hours at a time.”

Student Cheryl Cabrera drives from Kohala to attend the class every Saturday.

“I wanted to take this course because of family history; I have a lot of family members with medical issues, and to further my education — maybe I can go out there and help someone else with the same medical conditions my family had and still is going through.”

A health assistant at Kohala High School, Cabrera said having the class available in Honokaa is easy and simple.

The instructors are “just awesome,” and having the classes in Honokaa “instead of us traveling (a) further distance” is good, she said.

According to Hale, the course covers patient check-ins, basic office skills, how to take vitals and how to perform electrocardiography tests, uninalysis, basic phlebotomy and injections, and assisting the provider in general.

Once students complete the 70-hour course, they are eligible to take the National Healthcareer Association’s certified clinical medical assistant exam.


The next 10-week course in Honokaa starts April 6.

Email Stephanie Salmons at

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