HILO — A new nonprofit organization is taking on the difficult task of making Hawaii Island hearts healthier.
Experts say cardiovascular health in the state has seen great improvement over the past decade. However, the rate of people dying from heart disease-related illness on the Big Isle remains about 20 percent higher than the rest of Hawaii, according to data analysis by the North Hawaii Outcomes Project.
In 2009, the most recent year with numbers available, Hawaii Island’s coronary heart disease death rate stood at 93.4 per 100,000 people, compared to 77.6 for the state as a whole.
That disparity, and the island’s underlying problem of limited access to health care, struck Waimea retiree and philanthropist Ray Chaikin as something he could do something about.
“It really goes back to 1951, when I first came to the Big Island,” he said Wednesday in a phone interview. “… I had to go to Honolulu for a procedure because there were no facilities on the Big Island. I came back for my post-op visit (with my doctor) and I said to him, ‘You’ve got to be really frustrated with this.’ I told him I’d been involved in some medically oriented organizations and I said, ‘I think I can help you.’”
Last week, that initial discussion led to the launch of a new nonprofit, Hawaii Island Cardiovascular Inc., that will seek to provide island residents with access to early screenings that can identify heart health issues before they become serious, and expensive, Chaikin said.
“We’re gonna start with some of the facilities on the island that have big flows of people coming through, we’ll start screening those people. And by this time next year, we could be screening many, many hundreds or even thousands of people,” he said.
The screenings are a good way to address Hawaii Island’s severe physician shortage — currently less than half the number needed — and transportation challenges that limit the number of people who can visit with health care providers to get regular checkups, he said.
He pointed out that much of Hawaii County’s underserved population lives on the southern end of the island, where transportation limitations further stymie residents’ ability to access cardiac screening and care. The goal will be to provide screenings in conveniently located areas for these residents.
“As we get started here, this will be a progression,” said Dr. Nathan Zilz, Hawaii Island Cardiovascular’s volunteer medical director. “We’re going to be setting up screenings at farmer’s markets, and other fairs and things. And we’ll also be doing education in schools. We’ll go in and talk about anatomy and physiology, and go through how to be healthy.”
Zilz hails from Washington and has served as director of Hilo Medical Center’s Cardiology Clinic since moving to Hawaii in January. An avid cyclist, the doctor makes it a habit to practice what he preaches, biking to work from his home north of Pepeekeo every day, or as often as East Hawaii’s soggy weather will permit.
“If my patients see me biking, I’m setting an example for them,” he said.
Zilz said Tuesday that the screenings will be relatively simple procedures checking blood pressure, blood glucose levels and cholesterol, and ultrasounds, in addition to providing information to residents. H added that he expects to see positive results from the nonprofit organization’s efforts within the first year, both for Hawaii Island residents and health care providers.
“It’s satisfying for myself as well, because rather than treating one person at a time who already has the disease, we’ll be addressing them beforehand. There’s an old Chinese proverb that says something like ‘A superior doctor prevents sickness. A mediocre doctor attends to impending disease. And an inferior doctor treats actual sickness,’” he said. “We want to try to prevent sickness, and hopefully we can change some of the statistics that we’ve been talking about.”
For more information about the organization, or to make a donation, contact Mary Stancill at firstname.lastname@example.org.