The neurosurgeon is out

Dr. Rogers has been on call for 20 years; surgical patients are flying to Oahu, for now

Dr. Thomas Rogers, Maui’s only neurosurgeon, has been dealing with his own health-related issue and been unavailable for the past few months. -- The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

Maui’s only neurosurgeon, Dr. Thomas Rogers, has been unavailable for the past few months because of a health-related issue, forcing all patients needing examination or surgery to fly to Oahu for treatment, Maui Memorial Medical Center officials said.

“All those patients (requiring a neurosurgeon) are flying over on an emergency basis, mostly to Queen’s (Medical Center), because most require surgery or potential surgical intervention,” said Dr. Ron Boyd, head of radiology, on Monday. “It’s a fair number. I don’t know the exact number, but I’m sure it’s a few every week.”

Alicia DeRamos, medical office assistant manager for Rogers’ private practice in Kahului, clarified Wednesday that the doctor is “taking some R&R and has every intention of returning to work.” She declined to say what the health issue was out of respect for Rogers’ privacy, and Rogers could not be reached for comment.

“He’s not retiring as the popular rumor seems to think,” DeRamos said. “He plans to return to work, I just haven’t gotten word on exactly when. But I’m sure everybody is looking forward to it because everybody is feeling a little overwhelmed with him not around.”

Rogers, 74, has been on call 24/7 for the past two decades as the island’s lone neurosurgeon. He has conducted thousands of spinal surgeries and hundreds of brain surgeries since he moved to the island with his family in 1998.

Maui Memorial Medical Center is shown in a photo taken Friday. Maui’s only neurosurgeon, Dr. Thomas Rogers, has been unavailable for the past few months because of a health-related issue, forcing all patients needing examination or surgery to fly to Oahu for treatment, Maui Memorial Medical Center officials said last week. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Rogers reviews all head trauma and nearly all neck injuries admitted at his private practice and at Maui Memorial Medical Center. He has more than 1,000 patients from across the state.

“We’re hoping he’ll be back soon,” Boyd said, adding that the island averages about 12 to 15 intracranial aneurysms per year.

In seeking new neurosurgeons, Kaiser Permanente affiliate Maui Health System has conducted four or five in-person interviews with such doctors from the Mainland — with the latest coming last week, Boyd said. The hospital would likely not hire one, but it could provide a minimum income to a neurosurgeon for the first couple years as he or she establishes a private practice.

“We’ve got someone in our sights,” Boyd said of one candidate. “They individually have what we think is a good fit, but can’t come until at least next year.”

Even after attracting a new neurosurgeon, though, it is unknown whether the doctor would work the same amount of time as Rogers. In an interview last summer, Rogers recalled leaving Maui just three days over the past 20 years.

“How would you get one neurosurgeon to cover the island like Dr. Rogers has done?” Boyd asked. “He just loved his job so much. He never took time off. Whether we can find another one to replace him, I don’t know.

“We feel the impact with him out because he sees all the patients with back problems and lot of patients have back issues.”

Maui Health System spokeswoman Chastell Ely confirmed in an email Tuesday that “active recruitment is underway” for two neurosurgeons to join the hospital’s medical staff as community neurosurgeons in private practice, “with medical privileges to perform surgery” at the hospital.

Ely did not provide a timetable for when a neurosurgeon would arrive on Maui.

“Identifying the right candidate and getting them here could take some time,” Ely said. “We look forward to making introductions to our community as soon as possible.”

Ely added that most of the neurological cases seen at Maui Memorial require nonsurgical interventions. She said only a small percentage of cases require surgery and transportation to Oahu, with the majority receiving care from neurohospitalists and community neurologists.

In addition to finding a neurosurgeon, the Kaiser affiliate also has focused on recruiting full- and part-time employees, and “significantly reduced the use of temporary traveler staff,” Ely said. Nurse travelers have been reduced from 200 to approximately 80, which has “assisted in stabilizing our workforce,” she said.

It has been a little over half a year since Maui Health Systems assumed operations of Maui Memorial, as well as Kula Hospital and Lanai Community Hospital. Part of the changeover from Hawaii Health Systems Corp. to Maui Health System has been transferring medical records to the Kaiser affiliate and implementing its computer system.

“It’s been a rocky transition. I’d be lying if I said anything other than that,” Boyd said. “They’ve wired down most of the kinks, though, so it’s starting to work smoother now.”

Avery Chumbley, who served as Maui Region board chairman, said he also is “hearing positive things” from staff. He said aside from the extra fees that were initially charged and retracted for private postpartum rooms, he is “pleased with the successes so far.”

“The new leadership is encouraging, and I think they’re moving clearly in the right direction,” Chumbley said.

Maui Health System is in labor negotiations with the Hawaii Government Employees Association and United Public Workers on the unions’ first contract with the new management. HGEA represents 775 nurses and other health care professionals, while UPW has roughly 500 members working in maintenance, food service and laundry.

HGEA Executive Director Randy Perreira said in an email that the union’s goal is to ensure the investments from taxpayers and Kaiser “results in the best patient care and services” for Maui County. He added that he would like Kaiser to retain its current employees and recruit highly qualified and experienced “long-term” health care professionals.

“We strongly believe that industry standard working conditions, benefits and compensation are an essential element to achieving this goal,” he said. “While we have not been able to come to an agreement so far, we hope that MHS Kaiser will make an investment in the employees that will be beneficial to the entire community for the long term.”

Ely said Kaiser is working with the unions and continues to invest in people, services, facilities and technology to “build a high-quality medical community.”

“We value and respect the contributions of the more than 1,500 employees who provide care for the Maui community and we continue to actively negotiate in good faith,” she said.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.

COMMENTS