Written By Kristine Hojnicki

April 23, 2024
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Shayna Inafuku

Shayna Inafuku.

HPU is breaking new ground with the state’s first homegrown Master of Medical Science-Physician Assistant (MMS-PA) program, designed to educate the next generation of healthcare providers while addressing critical healthcare gaps in Hawaiian island communities. The 24-month program, delivered in a hybrid format, is the first of its kind in Hawaiʻi and has the potential to revolutionize physician assistant (PA) education. HPU looks forward to welcoming its first MMS-PA cohort in January 2025.

Shayna Inafuku: A Local Leader with a Vision

At the forefront of this groundbreaking initiative is Shayna Inafuku, MPAP, PA-C, Assistant Professor and Director of Admissions, for the HPU MMS-PA program. In a recent interview, Inafuku shared insights into her personal journey and how her early education at Kamehameha Schools influenced her desire to become a servant leader in the medical field.

Born and raised on the island of Oʻahu, Inafuku's educational journey began at Kamehameha Schools, a school committed to providing opportunities for Native Hawaiian children. She emphasized the impact of the school on her development, stating, "Without it, I think my life would be very different. It put me on the trajectory to be a first-generation college graduate."

From Aspiration to Action: A Journey to Becoming a Physician Assistant

Inafuku's trajectory to becoming a PA was marked by a diverse range of experiences and a deep commitment to serving underserved communities. After completing her undergraduate studies at the University of Southern California, she knew that she wanted to pursue a career in the medical field, but her interests ranged from going to medical school to speech pathology or audiology school. It wasn’t until her internship at Tripler Hospital that she realized the critical role PAs play in the healthcare system.

“I realized it was a good fit for me, hearing about the flexibility within the profession. So many different things in medicine interested me which was evident in my different internships and extra-curricular activities," Inafuku shared. “However, I was a little disheartened to learn that there weren’t any PA programs in Hawaiʻi and that I wouldn’t be able to return home to my ʻohana as soon as I would have liked to.”

Fortunately, the University of Southern California had a Physician Assistant Program. Inafuku was awarded the Native Hawaiian Health Scholarship which allowed her to fund her education in exchange for her service to an underserved community in Hawaiʻi. This commitment aligned perfectly with her passion for making a difference for Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders facing healthcare disparities.

A Dedicated Advocate for Underserved Communities

After completing her PA education, Inafuku returned to Hawaiʻi to fulfill her service commitment. She joined Waikiki Health, a federally qualified health center, where she played a crucial role as a medical provider in a community with high levels of homelessness and uninsured individuals.

"I saw firsthand the lack of basic necessities within many of our local communities and what they go through, and then how that impacts their health. Having providers who are willing to go into these communities truly makes a difference," Inafuku reflected.

She provided medical services at Youth Outreach (YO), a safe haven for homeless youth, gaining a deep understanding of the social determinants of health and the importance of culturally competent care. Inafuku's dedication to serving underserved populations became the cornerstone of her career, influencing her advocacy for healthcare equity and access.

A Vision for the HPU MMS-PA Program

Inafuku's rich background as a clinician and advocate for underserved communities uniquely positions her as the director of admissions for the developing PA Program at HPU. With a passion for connecting with others, she aims to be an effective ambassador for the PA profession and a keen identifier of focused and dedicated prospective students for the program.

As HPU progresses toward provisional accreditation, Inafuku envisions the program as a catalyst for change, encouraging more Hawaiʻi residents, especially Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, to pursue careers as PAs.

“This population is the lowest represented group in the PA profession workforce,” she explained. “Only 0.3% of PAs are Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander and, even less, 0.1% are PA educators.”

Inafuku expressed her hope that the program's presence in the community will help recruit more Hawaiʻi residents into the PA profession. She emphasized the significance of having healthcare providers who represent the diversity found in Hawaiʻi and are specifically trained to address the unique healthcare needs of Hawaiian island communities.

Revolutionizing PA Education with a Hybrid Approach

The HPU MMS-PA program stands out with its hybrid format, offering a 24-month curriculum that combines online didactic instruction with on-campus immersion experiences. The program's unique structure aims to reduce barriers for PA learners and create a more inclusive and flexible learning environment.

Inafuku explained, "Our hybrid model consists of synchronous and asynchronous learning, allowing students to stay wherever they currently reside. This is particularly important for Hawaiʻi residents facing the challenges of high living costs and displacement to the mainland U.S. The 1–2-week immersions at the HPU campus provide hands-on clinical skills training, bridging the gap between remote and in-person learning."

The program's goals align with its mission to educate learners with the knowledge, skills, and attributes for entry-level practice as physician assistants. It also aims to recruit, matriculate, and graduate a diverse student body committed to increasing the healthcare provider workforce in Hawai’i and underserved populations.

Addressing Critical Healthcare Gaps

PAs are board certified and licensed to perform diagnostics, therapeutic, preventive and health maintenance services in any setting where physicians provide care as part of the PA-Physician collaborative practice model. Therefore, the PA workforce is called upon to fill many of the critical gaps in healthcare across the nation, especially the ones seen in geographically isolated areas like Hawaiʻi. A homegrown PA program could have a significant impact on Hawaiʻi’s patient population.  

Inafuku highlighted the importance of the program's mission to serve Hawaiian Island communities and other underserved populations in the United States. "Our curriculum stresses both cultural competence and cultural humility, preparing graduates to understand the biopsychosocial factors that impact patients, which will help them serve communities effectively," she said. 

Boosting Diversity and Cultural Competence in Healthcare

As the program progresses toward accreditation, Inafuku envisions a future where more Hawaiʻi residents, especially Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, choose the PA profession. The program's unique focus on cultural competence, combined with the hybrid learning model, has the potential to transform PA education and healthcare delivery in the region.

Inafuku's final words encapsulated her passion for the program and its impact on the community: "I hope the presence of this program in our community will help to recruit more Hawaiʻi residents into the PA profession and will graduate healthcare providers who both represent the diversity found in Hawaiʻi and are specifically trained to care for the unique patient populations in Hawaiian island communities."

For more information about the HPU MMS-PA program, preparing to welcome its first cohort in January 2025 with applications opening in April 2024, visit HPU MMS-PA Program.

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