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UH Public Health Grads Improve Hawaiʻi’s Health at HMSA

Photo: UH Public Health alums (from left to right) Sheryl Okamura (MPH, 2011), Kimberly Takata Endo (MPH, 2014), and Sara Keala Tanaka (MPH, 2011).

Three UH Public Health alumni who now work at the Hawaii Medical Service Association (HMSA) are helping to shape the way health care is delivered for hundreds of thousands of people in Hawaiʻi. With a community health mindset and a strong background in research and policy, they work to improve health care for HMSA members and the entire community.

Sheryl Okamura (MPH, 2011) manages health strategy at HMSA. She pursued a Master of Public Health after working in consulting for a few years. "Health policy really stood out to me as something to learn about," Sheryl says. "I've always enjoyed community work. I'm from Kauaʻi, and I'm very community-driven."

When she was in graduate school, the new hot topic in public health was the "social determinants of health," referring to the important way people's economic and social conditions influence their health. "When I first came to HMSA, this wasn't on anyone's radar, but just a year later, everyone wanted to know about it. I was able to help many of my colleagues understand how these aspects of people's lives affect their health, and how in turn it impacts the cost of health care for everyone."

While working toward her degree, Sheryl immersed herself in a project at the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center and found that the first-hand learning experience gave her a better perspective on community health needs. And it taught her how to analyze health policies.

"In my job, I've been able to use everything I learned," Sheryl says. "It was very exciting when the Affordable Care Act passed. My first job after grad school was working to help translate the new regulations and policies for HMSA."

Sheryl's colleague, Kimberly Takata Endo (MPH, 2014), is the senior manager of payment transformation at HMSA. As an undergraduate, Kim had been considering a career in either medicine or nursing, but then she took an introduction to public health class.

"I realized I wanted to do public health, and I was really interested in the UH program because of the way it's structured. There are a lot of internships and practicum work, and the faculty has close ties to the Hawaiʻi Public Health Association. Many people have gone through this program and are now working here in Hawaiʻi," Kim says.

A particularly influential experience for Kim was a project involving community-based participatory research. "We learned about communities, cultures, and how to build meaningful relationships – things you can't learn just by reading."

In her work today at HMSA, Kim runs a new payment model paying primary care providers for delivering high-quality, patient-centered care. "We are looking across our whole health care delivery system to find where people are accessing care, what services they are using, and what services they aren't using that could help them to improve their health."

Kim does a lot system-level thinking to find the best way to deliver care for HMSA members that also takes into account the workload for providers and the benefits for community partners. "That core of public health education really helps me in my work to set all of this up," she says.

In their work, Sheryl and Kim frequently collaborate with Sara Keala Tanaka (MPH, 2011), who is HMSA's director of strategic partnerships on Maui. Sara studied child development and community health as an undergraduate, and pursued a masters degree to further her interests in health policy and health law.

At UH Mānoa, she broadened her knowledge of policy and learned how to dig into health data. "I gained an understanding of how to do research, how to structure an analysis, how to use data to connect the pieces of a problem, and how to create an initiative to solve it," Sara says.

During her practicum class, she worked on projects to inform improvements to care quality. "I compiled and analyzed data to identify provider shortages, disparities in Native Hawaiian health, and gaps in diabetes care." After graduation, she worked as a research manager at Kaiser Permanente. "It was helpful to have a foundation in research as well as an understanding of health law."

While working in research, Sara shifted her focus, nudging her career toward health policy and implementation. "Working in research let me learn, grow, and dive into new ideas. But I realized I wanted to effect change more directly – I wanted the work I did to have a more immediate impact on improving Hawaii’s health care system."

Now, Sara works on Maui to improve health care focusing on innovative partnerships with providers. "We're looking at what's happening in the health system and asking questions about what is missing and what we can do to improve the system together."

Together, all three alumni want to help create a health care system that takes better care of people at costs everyone can afford. Considering the high costs of health care, they are working to make the system more integrated and community-focused.

Across the whole health care system, there has been a shift in philosophy and mindset, Sheryl said. People are moving away from a health insurer-provider relationship and toward an approach that involves engaging the whole community in a movement toward better health.

"We're committed to community-based work, and to improving things not just for HMSA members, but across the board, for the whole community," Sheryl says. "That is a perspective we gained through a public health education."

University of Hawai‘i Alumni