Column by UH Hilo Chancellor Donald O. Straney
UH Hilo Today
UH Hilo center to help improve health care in the islands
As an institution of higher education, the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo plays a critical role in shaping the quality of life in the communities we serve. With the maturation of the College of Pharmacy, UH Hilo is ready to take a leadership role in addressing health care issues in the state.
Rural communities all over America suffer shortages of physicians, pharmacists and other clinicians, and rural hospitals struggle to stay afloat. These challenges are more complex in the remote islands of Hawai‘i, some 2,400 miles from the nearest continent. It’s clear that improved access to high quality health care for our rural citizens is not going to happen on its own. We need coordinated action to maximize the effectiveness of existing resources.
To this end, UH Hilo has established the Center for Rural Health Science, which will be housed in the College of Pharmacy. The center will draw together a wide range of health care providers to solve rural health problems through research, education, community service, and policy change. Our College of Pharmacy has the capacity to lead such a major initiative, and our School of Nursing embraces the opportunity to support the center’s work.
The center’s founding director will be Dr. Karen Pellegrin, the College of Pharmacy’s director of strategic planning and continuing education. She is also the principal investigator of the $16 million federal Beacon Community grant, which serves as the cornerstone for the center’s work.
Incorporated as a non-profit, the Hawai‘i Island Beacon Community recently hired its core management team. The president and chairman of the board is Dr. Ed Montell, a gastroenterologist who has practiced on the Big Island for 30 years and served in numerous leadership positions for health care organizations. Dr. Montell’s leadership has been critical in bringing the community together to pursue the Beacon Community’s goals: to improve access to primary care, specialty care, and behavioral health care; to avert the onset and improve management of chronic disease; and to reduce health disparities among Native Hawaiians and other populations at risk.
The new center will also be the home of a grant from the US Department of Agriculture to improve medication safety for rural Hawaii’s older adults. Dr. Anna Barbato, assistant professor of pharmacy practice in the UH Hilo College of Pharmacy and a certified geriatric specialist pharmacist, took the lead in developing community educational programs. To date, the College of Pharmacy has delivered medication safety programs to over 500 seniors in rural areas, including the Big Island, Maui, Lāna‘i, and Kaua‘i. Additional public seminars are being planned.
The USDA grant also provides funds for continuing education for physicians, pharmacists, and nurses to help them improve medication safety in the older adults they treat. Dr. Scott Holuby, affiliate faculty member in the College of Pharmacy, has taken the lead in developing this program, which has been delivered via webinar to over 20 clinicians to date. The convenience of attending via webinar has been a key factor for clinicians in rural areas, where opportunities for live continuing education are rare. Additional sessions will be held to reach our goal of over 100 clinicians attending from rural areas throughout Hawai‘i.
These are examples of ways the Center for Rural Health Science will bring together health care resources on the island. Ultimately, the center seeks to produce measurable improvements in the quality of health care, its cost effectiveness, and the overall health of Hawaii’s rural communities. The center is an important means for UH Hilo to contribute to quality of life in the islands that sustain us all.