Inspire 2023

Pali Momi: In a Class By Themselves

The best part is that [the Clinical Education for Teens program] has the potential to change lives and generations through education while improving health.
Thais Lopez Vogel, VoLo Foundation co-founder

Mae Dorado, HPH community allied health educator; Roy Naira, medical assistant; Shaylynn Kiyota, medical assistant and Medical Assistant Program instructor; and Carl Hinson, HPH director of workforce development, are some of the faces of Hawaii Pacific Health’s groundbreaking Clinical Education for Teens program.

Math. Science. English. Arts, band or sports. Those are subjects you’ll usually find on most high school students’ class lists. But more than 450 recent Hawaii high school seniors added a few other courses to their schedules: including pharmacology, ambulatory care, blood collection and surgical instrument sterilization. And, instead of playing at the beach or hanging out with friends, they spent their weekends helping patients, nurses and physicians in medical clinics in their communities.

Hawaii Pacific Health’s Clinical Education for Teens program began in 2018 with a single big idea. At that time, HPH was focused on finding a way to help offset a statewide shortage of medical assistants. Local colleges and universities had stopped providing the training. At the same time, more than half of Hawaii’s public high school seniors were not planning to pursue higher education.

HPH’s workforce development team thought if they could provide local students an easily accessible path into well-paying jobs in health care, they might also be able to bridge the gap. To create this innovative program, they would need the support of many community partners. And they would need to start from scratch.

The Power of Partnership

“In our first year, there were a lot of ups and downs,” said Mae Dorado, HPH community allied health educator. Dorado was an associate professor of health sciences at Kapiolani Community College when Carl Hinson, HPH’s director of workforce development, and then-Waipahu High School principal Keith Hayashi told her about the unique program. She jumped in. “What made all the difference was finding great partnerships and the key people who believed in the program and found ways to make it work.”

The state Department of Education also signed on. But what especially excited Dorado was the opportunity to train students at a health care facility — something she had not experienced even at the college level. Waipahu High School and HPH found spaces for the students at the high school and Pali Momi Medical Center. But they needed help. Generous gifts from donors helped fund instructor positions and the medical equipment needed to turn simple classrooms into realistic clinical training grounds. Once the facilities were set, the teenagers were ready to go.

“The high school students are so motivated and ambitious,” Dorado said. “Their brains are like sponges. They're so excited to just have this exposure and the opportunity to get out there and work with others in the clinics.”

It takes more than passion, it takes commitment. Students accepted into the Medical Assistant (MA) Program must complete two semesters of coursework. This includes everything from how to measure vital signs such as blood pressure, to learning how to interview and screen patients, to taking blood samples, performing EKGs and giving injections. In addition, students have to complete 225 hours of externship — this involves working weekends at Straub Medical Center clinics at Pearlridge and Ka Makana Alii.

“It’s their senior year. There are proms, senior luau and all of those activities. But it's so funny, many of them would rather come to Saturday class than to some of their senior events,” Dorado said. “When they're excited to come, as instructors, we definitely love to be able to teach them.”

Dorado (left), with some of the medical assistants she trained when they were high school seniors: Roy Naira (middle) and Shaylynn Kiyota (right).

A Student's Journey

Roy Naira was one of those students. The son of a nurse, he was planning a career as a pharmacist when he enrolled in the program his senior year at Campbell High School.

“I didn’t know what an MA was before I got into the program,” Naira said. “I had the opportunity to see all the different jobs in health care, especially because the MAs are in contact with so many different people including nurses, doctors, pharmacists and specialists.” 

Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, Naira took classes at Waipahu High School and Pali Momi. Tuesday and Thursday, he kept up with his regular schoolwork at Campbell.

“It was challenging taking college-level classes and learning how to manage our time and schedules,” he said. “Our instructors were amazing, they made sure we didn’t get overwhelmed.”

After he graduated from the program and passed his national certification exam, Naira and a few of his MA Program classmates were immediately hired for HPH’s COVID-19 Vaccination Clinics across Oahu.  

“It was my first job. It was fun to actually apply the skills I had learned,” he said. “Being able to talk with so many patients so quickly, I improved my bedside manner and conversation skills by getting information about their allergies and talking with them about the vaccines.”

The experience of working directly with patients changed Naira’s path. Now, he balances work as an MA at the Dr.  James T. Kakuda Cancer Center at Pali Momi with classes at Leeward Community College as he studies to become a nurse. Naira may have begun a family tradition; his younger brother is in this year’s cohort.

The first cohort of medical assistant students graduated in the spring of 2019.

Growing Opportunities

In the six years since the program’s inception, it has grown to encompass classes at two high school campuses, welcoming seniors from 13 different schools. Eighty-seven students have graduated and earned their certification as MAs, all on their first attempt. Many are now working at HPH including Shaylynn Kiyota, a student from the first cohort, who is now a medical assistant at the Straub Clinic Pearlridge. This year, she also begins a new role as an instructor for the program where she got her start.

Thais Lopez Vogel and David VogelThe groundbreaking idea also paved the way for additional opportunities for high school seniors. Now, HPH offers training for several positions students can enter immediately after high school. Nurse aides, surgical instrument processing technicians and phlebotomists, who draw blood for laboratory tests, all received clinical education thanks to generous donors from Hawai‘i and across the nation.

“At VoLo Foundation, we are committed to making a positive impact for future generations. We chose to support the Clinical Education for Teens program and Pali Momi Medical Center to help provide medical career opportunities for high school students and at-risk youth,” said Thais Lopez Vogel, who founded VoLo Foundation in 2018 with her husband, David (photo right). “This initiative aligns well with our family foundation’s mission. The best part is that it has the potential to change lives and generations through education while improving health.” 

In all, 459 students from 15 public high schools have completed specialized training through these programs. With the help of committed community partners, teachers and educators, HPH hopes to prepare even more teens and young adults for a pathway to jobs that allow them to earn more than a living wage, while giving back to the communities that raised them.