New medical assistant training program offered through UH Hilo’s educational outreach center in Honoka‘a

The unique format of course delivery is a hybrid featuring online, in person, and live video conferencing sections. This type of continuing education allows for direct workforce development, say organizers.

By Leah Sherwood.

Group of students and instructors gathered for photo.
Current cohort in the medical assistant training program. Courtesy photo.

The University of Hawai‘i at Hilo is now offering a medical assistant training program using a new hybrid format. The medical assistant course, offered through the UH Hilo North Hawai‘i Education and Research Center in Honoka‘a, covers a broad range of skills including coding, computer skills, blood draws, electrocardiography, basic injections, pharmacology work, therapeutic communications, healthcare records, and first aid CPR training.

The program is open to those in the local community who want to further their interests in the health and medical fields and increase the chances of obtaining a job at a local healthcare facility.

Hybrid course delivery

The unique format of course delivery is a hybrid featuring online, in person, and live video conferencing sections.

For the in-class portion, enrolled students come in to the outreach center for four skills days where they do hands-on training, similar to how students in nursing programs train for their nursing practice. The courses focus on skills such as taking vitals (e.g., blood pressure, weight, and temperature), doing blood draws, vaccinations and injections (using training models), using hygiene and personal protective equipment in the work space, and conducting electrocardiograms (EKGs) used in determining heart rates and rhythms. Students also acquire administrative nursing skills.

The program was specifically designed to fill the skills gap that employers have identified in the local labor market.

“When it comes to non-credit course development, it’s not so much about ‘build it and they will come’ in the hopes that we will indirectly fill a need,” says Christine Hijirida, special projects coordinator in the non-credit course and workforce development at the center.

“The way to guarantee enrollment and personal advancement is by listening to what employers like Hamakua-Kohala Health are asking for, and then collaboratively creating programs and courses like these that are meeting employers’ skill demands.” This type of continuing education allows for direct workforce development, she says.

Kara Osada-D’Avella at large screen with the words: Competency-Based Education and the Medical Assistant Student, Chapter 1.
Kara Osada-D’Avella, owner of Island CPR, teaches a class with the help of UH Hilo North Hawai‘i Education and Research Center’s new 360-degree video conference equipment. Courtesy photo NHERC.

Employment opportunities

In addition to enrolled students wanting to start a career in health and medical fields, some students may be motivated to continue their higher education studies and seek out an undergraduate degree program closely aligned to their interests such as the bachelor of science in nursing offered at UH Hilo.

Other students may want to pursue additional coursework with the goal of taking the National Healthcare Association (NHA) exam to become a certified clinical medical assistant (CCMA). The NHA exam can be scheduled and taken through Island CPR in Kona or through NHERC.

It takes a village

Currently, the medical assistant training program has a diverse group of students of ages and life experiences. The youngest enrollee is 17 years old and the oldest is over 60. The program has 17 students total, with four students learning remotely from Hilo. Classes are held from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on Saturdays. The current session will run until March 16.

Kei-Lin Cerf
Kei-Lin Cerf

Kei-Lin Cerf, director of NHERC, says if the program is successful it could be used as a model to support other remote regions throughout Hawaiʻi such as Moloka‘i, Lana‘i and Kaua‘i.

The program has been in development since 2017, and is the result of a two-year, multi-community partnership effort by educational institutions and community healthcare providers. NHERC and community partners worked on designing the best format for delivering instruction, and ultimately a hybrid program was adopted to accommodate distance-learning students in Hilo.

The medical assistant course was developed in partnership with NHERC, Alu Like, Island CPR, Hamakua-Kohala Health and Bay Clinic’s Kea‘au Family Health and Dental Center. Island CPR is the training provider and NHERC contributes marketing, public relations and technology support. Funding for student scholarships was made possible by Kamehameha Schools.

NHERC is located approximately 40 miles north of Hilo in the former sugar plantation town of Honoka‘a. It is an extension of UH Hilo that offers programs to help people in the Hāmākua and North Hawaiʻi communities achieve access to non-credit and higher education.

Irene Carpenter
Irene Carpenter

“The Hamakua-Kohala Health Center is very pleased to be able to work with NHERC to create opportunities for our community to get medical training in an area of employment that has a shortage of trained personnel,” says Irene Carpenter, chief executive officer of Hamakua-Kohala Health. “This program was developed to create permanent jobs and will improve the health of our community.”


For more information about the program, contact Kei-Lin Cerf.

At the request of the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA), this story was updated on March 5, 2019, to clarify the certification process. The correct term is “certified clinical medical assistant” not “certified medical assistant.” And the sentence “A CMA credential designates a medical assistant who has been credentialed through the certifying board of the American Association of Medical Assistants” has been deleted.


Story by Leah Sherwood, a graduate student in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program at UH Hilo. She received her bachelor of science in biology and bachelor of arts in English from Boise State University. 

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