Catherine Toth Fox: Waimanalo Health Center has the right space for the right care

Larger rooms, native Hawaiian garden features, and natural light appeal to more patients who prefer the culturally appropriate approach.

Over the past few years, from the time I became pregnant to my mother’s cancer diagnosis, I have been a regular in hospitals. I received an IV once a week during the very difficult first trimester of my pregnancy, and my mother saw doctors and rehabilitation therapists sometimes several times a week for years.

I was by first name with most of the nurses, receptionists and parking attendants.

While hospitals and clinics strive to create a safe space for patients to receive medical care, modern designs have focused primarily on functionality and often come off as sterile and cold – and that can create anxiety. and stress in patients and can negatively impact their recovery (such as leading to shorter hospital stays). My mom never liked being in a hospital setting and I definitely put off ER visits because I hated sitting in uncomfortable chairs in too cold rooms while waiting for care.

But the design of healthcare centers today has changed dramatically. They are much more patient-centered, open, welcoming and inspired by nature.

That was the thought process behind the design and construction of Hale Ola Alua, a new facility for Waimanalo Health Center which opened in 2019. The federally qualified health center – there are 14 statewide – currently raising funds to renovate and expand its older campus, keeping in mind the needs of their mostly Native Hawaiian patients.

“The Waimanalo Health Center was born out of community advocacy efforts for health services in Waimanalo,” said CEO Dr. Mary Oneha. “We saw our first patient in 1992, and 30 years later we remain committed to providing affordable, quality health care to the community. We continually strive to meet the needs of the community, and as the demand for services grew, so did we.

The 19,500-square-foot, two-story facility, designed by Ferraro Choi, is light and airy, incorporating wai — or water — into the design. There is a wall in the lobby listing the names of the donors in what looks like raindrops, with the saying, “Ola i ka wai a ke ʻōpua”. It translates to “There is life in the water of the clouds.”

Waimanalo Health Center
Hale Ola Akahi at Waimanalo Health Center is currently fundraising to renovate and expand their old campus, with the needs of their mostly Native Hawaiian patients in mind. (Courtesy of Waimanalo Health Center)

This is a huge expansion for WHC. The new building sits on the 1 acre site of the former employee parking lot. It enabled the center to open a pharmacy and expand its services. The exam rooms here are also considerably larger to accommodate patients visiting their families – common with the Koolaupoko community it serves. In the old center buildings, rooms are between 57 and 100 square feet; here, some are up to 120 square feet.

“It was important to us to honor the rural character of Waimanalo and infuse the colors of the wai and the Koolau,” says Oneha. “Open waiting rooms and spacious exam rooms honor the great ohanas that come through our doors. This ensures that our mums and their keiki have room to navigate strollers and families can grab a tutu to see their doctor with ease. The garden features and natural light that permeate the building pay homage to our aina. It’s not just a building but a feeling of malama and aloha.”

One of the areas where WHC has seen the greatest need is in dental care. In 2020, it completed renovations to expand dental services, and two years later doubled its residency program to four from two dental residents who are available to provide care for anyone from keiki to kupuna. This is in addition to the three full-time dentists who, along with their staff, do everything from routine cleanings to root canal treatments.

Waimanalo Health Center
Waimanalo Health Center has a laau lapaau garden where cultural practitioners cultivate medicinal plants. (Catherine Toth Fox/Civil Beat/2023)

According to WHC, people, especially during the pandemic, have neglected their dental health. It didn’t help that 10 years ago Med-QUEST cut its adult dental benefits. But those benefits were reinstated in January — though many members don’t realize it — and WHC, like other federally licensed health centers, offers a sliding scale of pay for services. Sometimes care is free.

Earlier this month, WHC received a $500,000 grant from the Hawaii Dental Service Foundation to fund its new Kaneohe clinic and renovate its existing offices in Waimanalo. And part of the plan is to make sure the new space is inviting and not intimidating. (It’s hard enough to get people to go to the dentist.)

But where WHC really shines is in how it integrates modern healthcare with traditional Native Hawaiian practices – and how that has been integrated into its physical space. (This is also true at the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center.)

The Waimanalo Health Center Garden
The Waimanalo Health Center has an area of ​​the garden where people congregate and meet under the kukui trees. (Catherine Toth Fox/Civil Beat/2023)

Behind the green trailers of its original campus hides WHC’s hidden gem: the laau lapaau garden. Laau lapaau is the native Hawaiian practice of using herbs and plants for healing, and WHC offers it as part of its Maiola Services, the center’s cultural health program launched in 2015. Herbs and plants like the noni, mamaki and kukui are grown in this garden. , an oasis of exam rooms and medical equipment.

Here, patients and community members can take lessons from one of the centre’s seven cultural practitioners to learn how to grow these plants and make their own salves and teas at home. The program, led by kumu Leinaʻala Bright, also offers laau laapau and lomilomi massage services to patients.

“Serving a patient population that is over 52% Native Hawaiians and being in the special place of Waimanalo, it is important that we provide culturally appropriate care,” says Oneha. “Integrating the Hawaiian healing practices of lomilomi and laau lapaau has been effective in engaging patients in their care and further involving them in their health journey through sharing, educating, and growing laau for them. themselves and their families.”

Waimanalo Health Center
Waimanalo Health Center’s newest facility opened in 2019. (Catherine Toth Fox/Civil Beat/2023)

Space really matters. It is not uncommon to see WHC staff members holding meetings or having lunch in the garden, enjoying the Waimanalo breeze under the kukui trees.

Upgrading this part of WHC will replace aging laptops and expand dental, vision, and preventative health services, but it won’t disrupt the garden. It will remain.

These are the reasons why 98% of patients surveyed said they would recommend WHC to family and friends. Or why some of his patients come to WHC from outside Koolaupoko. Or why the center is serving more people than ever – and it’s likely to grow.

I wouldn’t have bothered with the weekly IVs if I had to spend time in a garden as well.

Civil Beat’s community health coverage is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, the Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, the Cooke Foundation, and Papa Ola Lokahi.

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