Q&A: UH Manoa’s NHCOE Principal Investigator says grant funds will help Native Hawaiians pursue health-related careers


Shane Ersland


The Native Hawaiian Center of Excellence (NHCOE), at the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM), was recently awarded a $3.4 million grant from the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Services Administration. Funds will support Native Hawaiians pursue careers in medicine and other health professions through education, research, and community-based initiatives.

The NHCOE helps to provide the inspiration, tools, and financial assistance students need to help serve Hawaiians as doctors. Dr. Winona Lee, Principal Investigator at the NHCOE, describes how the grant will help students in this Q&A.


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State of Reform: This grant will help Native Hawaiians pursue health-related careers. Through its work with Native Hawaiian students, what has the NHCOE identified as some of the challenges these students face in pursuing health-related careers?

Winona Lee: “The challenges students face while pursuing health careers include coming from families with a lower socioeconomic status (low educational achievement and/or low household income). Many Native Hawaiian students are first-generation college students who have limited access to resources to prepare them for higher education and lack role models or mentors in health professions. 

First-generation college students often have difficulties transitioning from high school to college due to financial struggles. Without underrepresented minority role models or mentors, it is difficult for Native Hawaiian students to realize that attending a health professions school is within reach, both in terms of their academic potential, as well as with financial and social support.

These early challenges are the reason the NHCOE’s work in building a pathway [for] potential medical students starts at the middle school [level] and extends to the post-baccalaureate level, providing outreach and service programs that address academic preparedness, high school, and college readiness, and career planning.”

SOR: What are some ways in which these funds will be used to help them?

WL: “The NHCOE Native Hawaiian Student Pathway to Medicine Program brings Native Hawaiian role models, [including] physicians and medical students, together with Native Hawaiian pre-medical students to offer strategies and inspiration to pursue careers in medicine.

NHCOE provides direct financial assistance in the form of student stipends to help students prepare for the Medical College Admission Test, which is required for admission to medical school.

NHCOE is also actively recruiting and engaging with Native Hawaiian students through career fairs and health education sessions hosted in partnership with high schools and colleges across the state.”

SOR: What types of community initiatives are available to these students? Do they have any opportunities to learn from Native Hawaiians who are currently working in health professions?

WL: “NHCOE is actively recruiting and engaging with Native Hawaiian students through career fairs and health education sessions hosted in partnership with high schools and colleges across the state. 

NHCOE’s use of virtual online platforms has greatly expanded mentoring engagement and outreach, particularly to students on neighboring islands and on the continental US. Direct mentoring and health education sessions are provided to students enrolled in our Nanakuli Wai’anae Pathways to Health Program

Through partnerships with teachers and administration from Nanakuli High School and Intermediate School, and Wai’anae High School, JABSOM medical students spend time with students on campus and do joint huaka’i [field trips] to learn about health careers and ways to improve students’ health, as well as the health of their families.”

SOR: What are some other ways NHCOE is helping to improve equity in healthcare?

WL: “To improve health equity, NHCOE believes that we must prepare the future physician workforce to meet the unique needs of our underserved communities. NHCOE assists with the placement of medical students with healthcare providers that serve a significant number of Native Hawaiians in community-based medically underserved facilities. 

Many of these facilities are on neighboring islands. Students discover unique attributes of each facility or healthcare provider, the major medical and social challenges faced within each community, and the community’s response to the healthcare needs of Native Hawaiians. 

Students receive formal training about the history and significance of the site, along with cultural expectations and practices in the delivery of patient care prior to their placement. Students have the opportunity to work with a traditional Native Hawaiian healer in caring for patients, and engage in interprofessional education training from a multidisciplinary healthcare team. 

NHCOE is also the lead unit that provides cultural competency training for JABSOM medical students, as well as retention and student support services for all Native Hawaiian students enrolled at JABSOM.”

This Q&A was edited for clarity and length.