Crisis at Hilo Medical Center highlights staffing and bed shortages at Hawaii hospitals

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) – The crisis in patient care at Hilo Medical Center is grabbing the attention of lawmakers and helping to spur a broader conversation about staffing and bed shortages at hospitals across the state.

On Tuesday, Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chairman Jarrett Keohokalole. will tour Hawaii Island facilities to get a first-hand look at overcrowding and staffing shortages.

Staff say the problems have only gotten worse over the past few years.

“It’s the fact that we’re so full. We can’t take care of all of our patients,” said Hilo Medical Center intensive care unit nurse Ashley Mae.

Hospital CEO Dan Brinkman said his staff are caring for more patients now than they were at the height of the Delta coronavirus outbreak. He believes a big part of the solution would be to add more beds.

“We’ve done a lot of prep work here,” Brinkman said. “These plans are ready to go.”

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Last year, funding for the hospital bed expansion project shelved by the state legislature failed.

It’s a $50 million request that needs to be made again this session — and Hilo is far from the only hospital in need.

“They need help on Kauai. They need help in Maui. On both sides of the Big Island,” Keohokalole said.

He is one of half a dozen lawmakers who recently contacted the hospital in a bid to address its health care crisis.

The senator says the pandemic has brought to light staffing and infrastructure issues at every hospital in Hawaii. It’s an issue he says should be a top priority in the Legislative Assembly.

“Now that we know, we can’t ignore it. And we have to make sure that we pay attention to it and give it the appropriate priority,” Keohokalole said.

Currently, hospitals are short of more than 700 nurses across the state.

Hilo Medical Center has the worst with 75 full-time positions needing to be filled. This makes the facility heavily dependent on traveling carers from the mainland.

“There’s no shortage of young people in Hawaii who would like to be nurses,” Brinkman said.

But there is also a shortage of nurse educators.

Of the more than 1,500 qualified applicants who attempted to pursue nursing education at Hawaii universities last year, more than half never made it to class because space is so limited.

Along with looking for ways to hire more teachers, Keohokalole said incentives should also be part of the conversation.

“In the past, we have considered incentives for professionals who become mentors or take on apprentices. It is a dialogue that we must engage with the establishments which are desperately understaffed at the moment.

Hilo Medical Center officials say the hospital will hire 41 additional full-time nurses next spring through its nursing residency program.

This should roughly halve the number of travelers needed at the hospital.

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