AAHPM Visionary: James L. Hallenbeck, MD

James L. Hallenbeck, MD
Associate Professor of Medicine, Palo Alto Veterans Affairs Health Care System, CA 

Who has most influenced your work and what impact has he or she had?
David Weissman and Charles von Gunten early on welcomed me into their work on education, which in turn helped me get to know and work with a number of leaders in the field.  National leaders within the Department of Veterans Affairs, including Bonnie Ryan, Diane Jones, and Linda Johnson, among others, supported early efforts to study and push for improved hospice and palliative care within the VA. I was strongly influenced by the work of Edward Hall in his anthropologic work on intercultural communication, which guided work I have done on communication training. In my local VA facility I was most fortunate to find my way to our inpatient hospice program, one of the oldest in the country, being founded in 1979 by Vickii Ellis and Dwight Wilson. My fellow staff, veterans, and their families of our VA Palo Alto Hospice and Palliative Care program have undoubtedly had the greatest influence on me, helping keep me grounded, when I might otherwise have floated off into flights of fancy. For all these people and countless others, I have nothing but the deepest gratitude.


What does it mean to you to be named a Visionary in Hospice and Palliative Medicine?
I was pleasantly surprised with the notification, especially as in recent years I have had limited visibility in the field, due to family obligations. It is nice, frankly, to be acknowledged and remembered. I suppose it also means that I am getting old, although I’m not sure I needed to be reminded of that. I guess, as we so often see with our patients, there are events and times in life that call for a certain summing up or reflection. This acknowledgement is one such moment. The acknowledgment is celebratory for all of us, as we look back over the past 30 years. We’ve come a long way. While I appreciate the recognition, I’m acutely aware of where I’ve fallen short on certain aspirations of my youth and the work yet to be done. The good news is that this leaves plenty left over for future visionaries.


What is your vision for the future of Hospice and Palliative Medicine?
My wish for the field is that it becomes nothing special, something that is accepted as a matter of course. There could be no greater tribute. It is regrettable that we needed to create this specialty, although I believe we truly did.  What we have always advocated for is something so basic – for people to be able to live completely until they die. It seems absurd that we needed to create something special for this purpose. That we needed and need to so advocate for a change in our medical system of care and our greater society is fundamentally a radical act. I hope that future leaders in the field will appreciate the revolutionary aspect of what we have been trying to accomplish and will build upon whatever base we have been able to establish. Tag, you’re it.


James L. Hallenbeck, MD is one of 30 individuals who have been named a Visionary in Hospice and Palliative Medicine by AAHPM for their 30th Anniversary in 2018. Learn more about the Visionary recognition and view a list of all current and past Visionaries.

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