"I was a little stunned."
That's how Maui internist Michael Savona describes his reaction to being asked to join the HMSA board of directors.
Why stunned? Not because he isn't qualified.
Savona has been practicing medicine on Maui since 1976. Until 1987, he was with the Maui Medical Group. That's the year he opened his own internal medicine practice in Wailuku, and started learning the challenges of doctoring as a small business owner.
He gives one example: The doctor had a machine that could analyze blood while the patient was there in the office being examined. But he had to give it up because "to be cost-effective, we'd have to do about 75 tests a day, and who sees that many people a day?" Now, like most private practices, he sends out blood work, and gets results in two or three days.
Wrestling with issues like this has caused Savona to develop strong opinions about how to provide his patients with quality care that is also cost effective. In part, that means educating them about the true cost of services. He says that some patients will request a CAT scan because they have a recurring headache, and they're afraid they have a brain tumor. "I can tell from looking at them and from what they tell me that they don't likely have a brain tumor," he says. But some patients will still want the expensive CAT scan, "because it's somebody else paying for it."
Savona's strong opinions are what first brought the good doctor to the attention of HMSA. Frankly, it was not love at first sight. More than once Savona had spirited debates with HMSA representatives about cost issues.
No wonder then, that the outspoken doctor was "stunned" to be asked to join the board. And it turns out that his name was recommended to the board by HMSA Executive Vice President Bernard Ho -- the same gentleman with whom he had had some of those debates. "Bernard said he was always impressed that I was so willing to speak my piece," recalls Savona.
Savona is now into his third three-year term on the board. All members serve as volunteers. "I enjoy it," he says. And he feels that board members have a real impact in representing members' interests, even on contentious issues. "I've never been a yes-man," he says with a grin.
He says he's learned a lot about HMSA. "They work very efficiently for the little money that they take to run their organization. There aren't a lot of businesses I know of that run on a 7-percent overhead."
Though finding himself serving on HMSA's board is somewhat of a surprise to Savona, being a physician is not. He can't remember a time when he didn't want to be a doctor.
Born in New York City and raised in Queens, he is the son of a Manhattan pharmacist. He recalls spending time in the pharmacy after school watching his father crushing medication ingredients with a mortar and pestle -- tools that Savona still has. He feels his father's profession certainly had an influence on his own career choice. It came from "seeing my dad work with people and seeing the satisfaction of helping people," he says.
The little free time the doctor has is devoted to his wife, Dorothy, and their two children, Natalie, 20, and Mikhail, 8. His favorite diversion these days is taking karate with his son. And Dad freely concedes that, when it comes to his family, he is totally a yes-man.