celebrating 50 years of imi hoola

Michelle Liu
July 06, 2023

Hawaii is brimming with hidden talent. Students across the Islands are intelligent, curious, and driven, but not everyone is afforded the same opportunities. That’s why the John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM) is committed to finding aspiring physicians from underprivileged backgrounds to help them succeed.

JABSOM’s Imi Hoola post-baccalaureate program is celebrating its 50th anniversary this October. For the last half-century, the 12-month program has offered students from economically, socially, or educationally disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to achieve their dream of becoming a physician.

2023 graduates of Imi Hoola. Photo courtesy JABSOM.

But it’s a rigorous process. Just 12 students are selected per class. They spend the year studying medical biology, medical biochemistry, and how health care services are delivered with a community and patient-centered focus. 

“They learn about the impact of poverty and education attainment on health, gain exposure to community-centered health care systems, and develop their critical thinking and communication skills as future physicians,” says Winona Lee, M.D., Director of Imi Hoola. 

Dr. Lee speaking to Imi Hoola students. Photo courtesy JABSOM.

Students are also exposed to the skills needed to work with patients from different cultures, medical professionalism, and how to enhance their own well-being since these are critical aspects of becoming a competent and compassionate physician.

Those who complete the program then enter JABSOM as first-year medical students. More than 300 students have graduated from Imi Hoola, earned their Doctor of Medicine from JABSOM, and are in residency training or practicing in Hawaii, the continental U.S., and the Pacific. 

“The program has been essential to diversifying the physician workforce in Hawaii,” says Dr. Lee. “Thirty-eight percent of Native Hawaiians, 34% of Filipinos, 57% of Micronesians, and 89% of Samoan students who graduated from JABSOM came through Imi Hoola.”  

Diversity in the field of medicine is crucial to providing the best patient care. Studies show that having a health care workforce as diverse as the patient population results in more understanding, trust, and compassion. 

Imi Hoola graduates celebrate with a selfie. Photo courtesy JABSOM

The students’ commitment to stay and work in Hawaii also helps the ongoing physician shortage in our state. Hawaii needs about 800 physicians, according to the Hawaii Physician Workforce Assessment Project.  

Hailey Liang plans to be part of the solution. When she was accepted into Imi Hoola in 2020, she knew it was her pathway to success. 

“Without Imi, it probably would have taken me longer to pursue a career in medicine. I would have taken two or more gap years before reapplying to medical school,” says Liang. “But Imi prepared me for my first year at JABSOM. It covered physiology, pathophysiology, and anatomy related to the various organ systems.”

Hailey Liang at her Imi Hoola celebration. Photo courtesy JABSOM

Liang graduated from Imi Hoola in 2021 and is now a third-year medical student at JABSOM. She plans to use her third year to explore her various interests in medicine, some of which don't have residency programs on the Islands. So while her future residency may take her away from Hawaii, Liang intends to return home. 

“I hope to come back and serve my community,” Liang says. “Imi emphasized service and leadership. Since completing the program, I’m motivated to give back to the community I grew up in.” 

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