The UH Mānoa John A. Burns School of Medicine’s Kauaʻi Medical Training Track was established with a $10 million gift last year from Dr. Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg to help address Kauaʻi’s physician shortage and directly improve the health and wellness of families on the Garden Isle. The program recently sent its first cohort of six students to study on Kauaʻi.
Here is a Q&A with Dr. Erika Noel, who was appointed director of the program on Kauaʻi in late 2022.
The community on Kauaʻi is so tight-knit that Dr. Erika Noel can’t go to Costco without seeing her young patients with their families.
It’s what first attracted her to the Garden Isle as a teenager, and last fall she realized her goal to live there when she moved to Kauaʻi to practice pediatrics and join the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa John A. Burns School of Medicine Kauaʻi Medical Training Track as the program’s director on Kaua‘i.
The six-year project, funded by a $10 million gift from Dr. Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, embeds a cohort of six medical students on the island each year as part of their training.
The first cohort of six first-year medical students recently arrived on Kauaʻi to start shadowing local doctors to learn the ins and outs of practicing medicine in a rural setting and to participate in community health events such as the Teen Health Camp.
Each cohort will spend at least part of each year on Kauaʻi during their four years at JABSOM — by their third year, they will spend five to six months on the island as part of their clinical rotation.
Dr. Erika Noel, Dr. Geri Young (center) and members of the inaugural Kauaʻi Medical Training Track.
Students who complete the program will commit to practicing medicine on Kaua‘i for four years after finishing a residency program.
Noel notes that doctors who practice rural medicine must be prepared to treat a wide range of conditions for all patients, since there maybe few or no specialists.
“The students will have exposure to this type of medicine that’s maybe not as practiced as much in more metropolitan areas where there are more specialists,” Noel says.
Noel grew up on Oahu and graduated from Kaiser High School in Hawaiʻi Kai. She received her medical degree from JABSOM after graduating from Soka University of America in California and attending Georgetown University.
In addition to running the Kauaʻi Medical Training Track for JABSOM, Noel is also a practicing pediatrician at Hawaiʻi Pacific Health’s Kauaʻi Medical Group. Her wife, Sachi Mendoza-Yamamoto, is finishing her master’s degree of social work and will be a practicing social worker on Kauaʻi.
Q: What is the biggest draw to practicing medicine on Kauaʻi?
A: The biggest draw for me, why I decided to come here to Kauaʻi, is the community. Being really involved in the community is the best part about rural medicine, that you truly get to take care of everyone’s family and everyone gets to know you very well. More than that, it’s being part of this community that you grow to love. They’ll be able to see patients who are pregnant and maybe they’ll get to go to their delivery and then the next week they’ll get to see the baby and newborn at the follow up clinic. That’s a pretty special setup, for sure.
Q: What specialties are needed on Kauaʻi?
A: Definitely primary care. I moved here in August and I had an extremely hard time finding my own primary care physician. We have such a huge need for any primary care, but in all honesty, there’s room for a majority of other specialties as well. It’s kind of neat that the students are coming in at a time where pretty much they have an open field for them. They can go into any field and they’ll be needed here.
Q: Would you have liked to have participated in this program when you were in medical school?
A: Absolutely. I have taken every opportunity to be on this island since I was a medical student. I feel like I built my roots through medical school and in making my own pathway here. Now that this is something formal and established, it’s such a privilege to have the program here. I’m really happy for JABSOM and the upcoming students who are able to go through this program.
Q: Why did you choose to practice on Kauaʻi?
A: It’s a funny story. I was a tennis player in high school and I came to Kauaʻi for the first time for a tennis tournament. There was just something so intriguing about the beauty of Kauaʻi. I told everybody I’m going to live here one day, and that thought surely never went away.
All throughout my college years and medical school, I feel like I have taken many, many steps to find a way to make my path here. It’s funny because I shared that with the pediatrician who used to work here. He said, ‘You don’t have to win points with me by telling me you want to practice here.’ I said ‘oh, no, I truly do want to practice here!’
I actually now work in the office where he used to be.
Special to UH Med Now, Janis Magin, Director of Communications, University of Hawaiʻi Foundation