New physician assistant program could boost Big Isle health care

  • RANTZ

  • SCOTT

A physician assistant program from Washington will expand to West Hawaii this fall, but ultimately will improve access to medical care throughout Hawaii Island and the state.

The MEDEX Northwest Physician Assistant Program at the University of Washington School of Medicine is expected to welcome its inaugural cohort of 17 students to the new distant campus in Kailua-Kona on Sept. 14, pending local restrictions in place because of COVID-19.

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Approval for the site was announced Tuesday by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant.

The new campus will educate physician assistants to work within Hawaii to address the shortage of health care providers statewide.

“For most people the first impressions of Hawaii are of beautiful settings,” said MEDEX Program Director Terry Scott in news release. “It’s paradise. People go for a week and have a great time. But for those that look beyond the usual tourist activities, they see a real need for health care providers in the state. It’s a broad need that’s been well documented for many years by the state Legislature. For those who understand this need, it is very clear why MEDEX should expand to the state. PAs are a part of the solution. The MEDEX program is well-positioned to deliver this education.”

Scott said in a follow-up interview with the Tribune-Herald that private donors contributed to the support of the program, but did not elaborate on who those donors were.

“In our initial research, the need for health care providers was greatest on the neighbor islands,” Scott said. “The cost of living on the Big Island was more affordable for students and faculty. The community embraced our plans to bring a program to Kona and formed a community advisory group that actively supported our efforts.”

Lisa Rantz, executive director of the Hilo Medical Center Foundation, which serves as the Big Island’s Area Health Education Center that helps address the health career workforce pipeline, said Hawaii Island has a “huge physician shortage,” and has lost 30 doctors, mostly specialists, since January.

“I think it’s an exciting opportunity to help with our primary care shortage because (the students) can go into work in a team-based environment in a physician’s office,” Rantz said.

Having a physician assistant perform primary care will allow doctors, who will consult with the assistant, to see more patients, she explained.

In Hawaii, all medical residency programs are located on Oahu, with the exception of Hilo Medical Center’s Hawaii Island Family Medicine Residency program, but Rantz said physician assistant students will be doing rotations around the Big Island — and possibly on other islands eventually.

“I’m excited to see a solution for our provider shortage becoming a reality in my old hometown of Kona,” said Lt. Gov. Josh Green, an emergency room physician, in the news release. “The MEDEX team has a great track record of training PAs. This will be a game changer for the Big Island and all of Hawaii.”

Betty Stewart was named as the site director for the Kona campus.

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“This is the culmination of six years of incredible support and collaboration with Hawaii leaders in health care, government and the local community to address the health care provider shortage,” she said in the release. “We know our PA graduates will make a significant impact on access to quality health care.”

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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