Residing on Hawaii Island can cause a life expectancy about 1.2 years shorter than that of Oahu residents, a North Hawaii physician said Tuesday evening.
Dr. Sharon Vitousek, who works with the North Hawaii Outcomes Project, offered that statistic and more about the poor health outcomes that can face Hawaii Island residents, during a West Hawaii Community Forum at the Makaeo Events Pavilion at the Old Kona Airport Park.
Hawaii Island has higher death rates across all categories, including heart disease and strokes, as well as three times more traffic fatalities than Oahu, Vitousek said. North and South Kona have particularly high accidental death rates, mostly related to traffic fatalities, which are, in turn, often related to alcohol or drugs, she added.
She offered several reasons why Hawaii Island residents have worse health outcomes than residents of other islands.
“We have much higher adult poverty and child poverty,” she said. “We have a lower per capita income. We have more smoking than the rest of the state.”
The island’s obesity rate is higher than the state average — and rising — as is the binge drinking rate, she added.
At the same time, Hawaii Island has a higher rate of underinsured or uninsured residents, and the island is short about one-third of the number of primary doctors it could use.
One meeting attendee, in a written question, pointed to a recent report that said Hawaii residents live longer than residents of other states. Vitousek said some of the increased longevity in the state is genetic.
Susan Hunt, project director of the Hawaii Island Beach Community, offered another insight on the disparity between a long average longevity, but high incidences of poor health outcomes.
“There are pockets of poor health throughout the state,” Hunt said, noting Native Hawaiians have higher rates of certain diseases, including diabetes, than the broader population.
Sen. Josh Green, D-Kona, Ka‘u, said he also sees disparities in health outcomes between whites and Japanese people and Native Hawaiians.
“There are a ton of programs out there (to help people improve their own health), but people don’t avail themselves of them,” he added.
Dr. Jeffrey Tolan, a family practice doctor with Kaiser Permanente in Waimea, noted his medical group makes an effort to offer smoking cessation counseling whenever possible. Kaiser’s new Kona clinic, set to open next summer, also will offer more opportunities, and space, for health education.
“In this country, most of our resources go to sickness, not wellness,” Tolan said. “We’re trying to turn that around.”
Several meeting attendees also submitted questions relating to a possible private-public partnership with Kona Community Hospital, and asked CEO Jay Kreuzer what time frame, if any, existed to build a new hospital in West Hawaii.
Kreuzer said during the recent discussions with Banner Health Corp., a mainland-based not-for-profit health system that expressed interest in Kona Community Hospital and Maui Memorial Medical Center, there were talks of building a new hospital in North Kona. He said the hospital continues to face financial challenges, in part because of the existing contracts with employees that provide benefits the hospital is finding difficult to afford. Banner officials did promise to pay “mainland wages” to hospital staff, Kreuzer said, adding those rates were higher than current pay rates.
But he said Banner officials had not made guarantees about retaining existing staffing levels.
The company may have been able to provide some more efficient practices that may have reduced the number of hospital employees, he said.
“The biggest concern is we can’t grow,” Kreuzer added, answering a question about when the hospital should be replaced. “Is there a drop dead date? Yeah, it was yesterday.”