Recruitment of doctors continues as hospital adds five more surgeons

Since Maui Health System takeover, 11 new physicians have come on board

MICHAEL REMBIS – Maui Health System CEO

WAILUKU — In the past four months, Maui Health System has recruited five doctors, bringing the total to 11 new physicians since the Kaiser Permanente affiliate took over management of Maui County’s three quasi-public hospitals nearly two years ago.

The most recent doctors hired are two neurosurgeons, two trauma/general surgeons and one oncological surgeon, said Michael Rembis, chief executive officer of Maui Health System, which runs Maui Memorial Medical Center, Kula Hospital and Lanai Community Hospital.

“We’ve only just begun our recruitment. We still need more doctors on this island,” Rembis said in an interview earlier this month. “People will get more and more confident in our capabilities as a hospital the more we bring in great, well-skilled qualified surgeons that will work here, and physicians.”

A firm hired by Maui Health System to study physician need on Maui found that the island needs 100 more physicians over the next five to 10 years, Rembis said in an interview last year marking the one-year anniversary of the management change. He said then that a goal is to recruit 10 physicians every year.

On July 1, 2017, Maui Health System took over the management of the hospitals. Gov. David Ige said at the time that the 30-year contract would save the state $260 million over 10 years — though the state would still need to subsidize the hospitals initially.

Maui Health System’s subsidies from the state to run Maui Memorial Medical Center will be decreasing. The hospital system, which also includes Kula and Lanai Community hospitals, got $28 million for the current year and is requesting $26 million for next fiscal year, which begins July 1, from the state Legislature. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Last year, the hospitals received $28 million from the state. Maui Health System is requesting $26 million for the next fiscal year, Rembis said, adding that each year the state subsidy goes down and Maui Health System will be asking for less.

In his version of the budget, Gov. Ige has requested $20.5 million for next fiscal year. The state Legislature is currently hammering out its version of the budget, which will determine what Maui Health System receives.

Rembis said last year that keeping patients on-island will help Maui Health System wean off its reliance on state subsidies.

In the recent interview, he noted that with the new physicians, Maui County residents won’t need to fly to Oahu or the Mainland as much for medical care.

For example, in his first two weeks on the job, neurosurgeon Joe Ulloth, who began at the end of January, operated on about a half-dozen patients on Maui.

That meant six patients who didn’t need to go to Oahu, Rembis said.

The hospital already had neurointerventionalists who could take care of some stroke incidents, but not all.

The neurosurgeons can operate on brain tumors and provide surgical treatment of brain or spine infections and aneurysms.

Rembis said neurosurgeries were not being performed for more than a year on Maui since Dr. Thomas Rogers retired. He had been the only neurosurgeon on Maui for about 20 years.

Maui Health System’s second neurosurgeon, Christopher Taleghani, begins April 1.

“Now people don’t have to worry if they have a stroke, it can get taken care of right here,” Rembis said, noting that time is of the essence with strokes.

“(Also) the role of the family is really important in your recovery, having your support system here,” he added.

Other new hires are trauma/general surgeons Stephanie Yan and Rob Connaughton and oncological surgeon Derrick Beech.

There are some slots the hospital will not be able to fill, including critical care for infants.

Rembis said the hospital does not have enough births right now to sustain a neonatal intensive care unit.

No Neighbor Island has an NICU.

Organ transplant patients will need to go off-island as well.

Rembis says he is still on the lookout for more oncologists, with the goal of establishing a cancer center.

It would include a “navigator” to help patients with appointments and other issues.

The hospital will work with the Pacific Cancer Institute, which is on the hospital grounds and has a radiation oncology program, Rembis said.

Rembis is asking the community to help Maui retain its physicians, especially as in the past some have stayed on island for a couple of years and then have left.

“It’s because they are not part of the community.” He asked residents to include the new doctors into their communities and invite them to clubs and groups.

“It’s very hard coming here new and starting a practice. I want these physicians to stay here for rest of their professional lives,” Rembis said.

Another issue is medical office space. Currently, Rembis said, when he brings in new doctors he seeks out arrangements with groups in the community such as Maui Medical Group or the Kihei-Wailea Medical Center to house the doctors as there is not enough medical office space on the island.

Rembis added that Maui Health System continues maintenance on the three hospitals, which “looked tired,” when it took them over from the state.

“Some of the flooring hadn’t been done for 30 to 40 years,” he said.

At Kula Hospital, work has been done to refurbish the plumbing system, there is a new nurse call system and the dietary department has been renovated. On Lanai, flooring was renovated and new windows were installed, among other upgrades.

At Maui Memorial, public areas are being renovated and boilers are in the process of being replaced, Rembis said.

The state is giving the hospitals $6 million for 10 years to perform a lot of the deferred maintenance. (This is apart from the other subsidies as requested by Ige and Rembis.)

Kaiser has agreed to put $5 million annually for the refurbishments.

But even with $11 million, Rembis said, “It’s not enough right now.” The funding must also pay for equipment upgrades and new equipment.

The Maui Memorial Medical Center Foundation has provided $1 million to fund equipment for the neurosurgeons, Rembis said. If it wasn’t for the funding from the nonprofit, which relies on donations from the community, he said, “something else would have to suffer.”

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at