HONOLULU (June 21, 2012) -- The U.S. military has been providing care to Pacific Islanders since World War II.

In 1989, when U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, Hawaii, introduced a bill to Congress creating a care-outreach program at Tripler Army Medical Center, that secured the bond between Tripler and Pacific Islanders across the region.

The Pacific Island Health Care Project, or PIHCP, continues to be federally funded through U.S. Army Medical Command, and exists with the purpose of providing humanitarian care to the underserved indigenous peoples of the U.S. Associated Pacific Islands, as well as providing graduate medical education experiences to Tripler staff and residents.

Because of the geography in the Pacific region, a program like PIHCP offers health care for those who do not have access to or the resources to receive care.

Mary Takada-Naito and her husband, Uchel, from Republic of Palau, had no knowledge of the program until they needed it. In October 2002, Uchel was diagnosed with hairy cell leukemia, a rare, slow-growing cancer of the blood, and was referred to Tripler for treatment.

"I actually never knew nor had heard of the PIHCP until my husband came to TAMC in 2002 for his medical treatments," Takada-Naito said. "Several months later, when the doctors and nurses, the facility and its personnel, and even the patients and their families had become familiar to us, is when we really started to appreciate what we were receiving from the program."

While her husband was receiving treatment, Takada-Naito volunteered to assist other patients from Palau, who required an interpreter. In March 2005, she officially became coordinator for the Palau Medical Referral Program and case manager for patients that come from Palau through PIHCP.

"My role is to coordinate patients' appointments, make sure our patients get to their appointments on time and be available to interpret for them as well as be their support system," Takada-Naito said.

The humanitarian care received as result of the program is only half of the reason it is special to Tripler and the region. The educational value makes it a great asset to the medical training center.

"(Leadership and key leaders in the region) recognized that a lot of the patients coming (from the Pacific Islands) would provide good education to the medical center's residents-in-training and (allow us to) give humanitarian care to the under-served Pacific Islands," explained Col. Mark Burnett, medical director, PIHCP and Pediatric Infectious Disease and Travel Medicine Physician.

Burnett, who was a resident at Tripler from 1993-97, said he still remembers treating young Islanders at TAMC who were supported by the program many years ago and when he heard the PIHCP was in need of a new director, he volunteered.

Since Burnett has only been director since March 2012, he said he receives a great deal of support and mentoring from Col. (Ret.) Donald Person, who was the first medical director for the program and was stationed in the Pacific for many years.

"(Dr. Person) has a great love and interest for the people in the U.S. Associated Pacific Islands and this program was his baby," Burnett explained. "(He) recognized that there is a lot of need out (in the Pacific) and he was one of the people who really helped bring some of the patients (to TAMC)."

"There are incredible learning opportunities through this program," Burnett added. "It is really broadening our medical horizons and as people travel more and are deployed all over the world, I think it is really helpful for our doctors in training here."

Patients referred to Tripler have to have definable and fixable conditions. Then they can return to their lives on the islands.

Many changes have taken place since 1990 when the first patient from the Pacific Islands was admitted to TAMC.

"When (project participants explain) the PIHCP, much of it is synonymous with telemedicine," Burnett said. "When I was here in the early 90s, we would get calls from doctors in the islands and patients would be sent. We would get very little information about the patients prior to their arrival (at Tripler)."

Slowly throughout the 90s, the program equipped many of the islands with computers, digital cameras, scanners, video cameras and printers to support the web-based electronic consult and referral system that was created for it. By 2001, ten different sites were equipped for the web-based program.

"There are between 60-80 physicians with personal computers who are able to upload records and refer patients to be seen from their clinics now," Burnett said. "(In addition), as a lot of these islands get their own sophisticated medical care; a lot of the time they are just asking for advice and the patients don't have to be flown over here. It is a very rewarding (relationship)."

Burnett and Takada-Naito both feel that the program has a bright future and will continue to benefit Tripler and Pacific Islanders around the region.

"Not only did my family benefit successfully from PIHCP, but I have also seen firsthand many patients from the Pacific Islands returning home with smiles after having completed months of treatments," Takada-Naito explained. "When a seriously ill patient on a small island in the Pacific is told from their physician that he is being referred to TAMC, it sparks within the patient and his family a hope for cure. The PIHCP is about people, about giving hope, and it is about life."

Islands that are supported by PIHCP includes: American Samoa; Guam; the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands; the Republic of Palau; the Republic of the Marshall Islands, which includes Ebeye and Majuro; and, the Federated States of Micronesia, which includes Chuuk, Kosrae, Pohnpei and Yap.