Hospice and Palliative Medicine Visionary Charles von Gunten Shares His Insights on the Field

In celebration of 25 years serving the profession, the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine (AAHPM) asked its 5,000 members to nominate who they think are the leaders – or Visionaries – in the field. They then asked members to vote for the top 10 among the 111 nominated.

“This program recognizes key individuals who have been critical in building and shaping our field over the past 25 years,” noted Steve R. Smith, AAHPM executive director and CEO. “These individuals represent thousands of other healthcare professionals in this country that provide quality medical care and support for those living with serious illness — each and every day.”

The Visionaries – 14 women and 16 men – are physicians, nurses and hospice pioneers such as British physician, nurse and social worker Cicely Saunders, credited with starting the modern hospice movement, and Elisabeth Kübler Ross, author of numerous books including the groundbreaking “On Death and Dying.” Five elected officials were nominated and one of them, former President Ronald Reagan, was named a Visionary for signing into law the Medicare hospice benefit in 1982.

Many of the visionaries will be sharing their thoughts about the field and who inspired their work. We’ll be posting them over the next several months. Today’s post is from Charles F. von Gunten, MD PhD FACP FAAHPM, Vice President, Medical Affairs, Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Kobacker House in Columbus, OH.

Who has most influenced your work and what impact has he or she had?
There were many, but those that come to mind immediately include:
• Ted Rematt, a friend and old Roman Catholic priest who served as a volunteer chapin at the Hospice of St. John — for first introducing me to hospice care.
• Hospice nurses and Jamie Von Roenn, hospice medical director, — for guiding me when I started my residency in internal medicine at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
• Kathy Foley, Russ Portenoy and Bill Breitbart at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, Declan Walsh at Cleveland Clinic, Nigel Sykes at St. Christopher’s Hospice in London, Geoffrey Hanks at St Thomas’ Hospital and Janet Hardy at Royal Marsden Hospital — for allowing me to observe your work while I was learning about palliative care:
• Martha Twaddle, Mike Preodor, Mike Marshke and Kathy Neely — for helping me staff the inpatient unit so I would not always be on service.

What does it mean to you to be named a “Visionary” in Hospice and Palliative Medicine?
I couldn’t be more pleased that my colleagues see me as a Visionary and leader in our new field of medicine. I have never thought of myself as a visionary—rather, I see myself as an engaged and empowered clinician working to make bad things better. That is part of our professional calling as physicians—to respond to the needs of our patients and leave the system better than the way we found it.

What is your vision for the future of hospice and Palliative Medicine?
We are a part of standard medical care. The scientific results are in; palliative medicine isn’t a choice any more than washing hands before performing a surgical operation is a choice. The challenge is to build the systems and overcome the barriers to ensuring that palliative care is available to those who need it.

More information on the Visionaries project, including the list of 30 Visionaries is on the Academy’s website www.aahpm.org.

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