By Katie Demeria
WINCHESTER -- Blue Ridge Hospice recently filled a physician vacancy after a two-year search prompted by national changes to hospice board certification requirements.
Dr. Jo Cartmell joined the hospice after serving as the hospice medical director at another facility. Two other medical practitioners also started with Cartmell, including Dr. Hadassah Aaronson, who will work part time, and Richard F. Lewis, a physician assistant.
According to Lynn Gray, vice president of patient and family support services, the hospice was lucky to find Cartmell.
"There is a major shortage of board-certified hospice and palliative physicians," Gray said.
The American Board for Hospice and Palliative Medicine implemented a requirement for those seeking board certification to complete a one-year fellowship in the fall of 2012.
Gray said that even if physicians have 20 or 30 years of experience, they may not get certification if they did not complete that fellowship.
Cartmell said, nationwide, of all the hospice physicians, only around 2 percent are board certified.
Gray also pointed out that it is difficult to bring physicians to serve in such a rural area. Blue Ridge Hospice's headquarters are located in Winchester, but the area serves eight counties. Cartmell spends a significant amount of time traveling to visit her patients.
"We were competing against major hospitals for physicians," Gray said. "You have to have an affinity for this kind of area if you're going to work here."
Cartmell was hoping to move to a rural area before discovering the vacancy at Blue Ridge Hospice. She said she enjoys the home visits to rural locations because it feels like a more traditional kind of treatment that works well with hospice medicine.
"It's like going back in time," she said. "Back then, all doctors could really do was talk and listen. And that's what I enjoy. It's like going back to the basics."
"It's really about being able to relate to people and to feel like you're reaching out and making a difference," she continued. "You're in their home, sitting on their furniture, seeing their pictures and their life laid out in front of you."
Cartmell, along with nurses and certified nursing assistants, attempt to maintain the patient's best possible quality of life, making them comfortable and limiting their pain.
She said she hopes to encourage local residents not to fear hospice by putting a personal face on the branch of medicine.
"Hospice invokes fear, and something terrifying," she said. "When you work there, though, you realize that there's really a lot of joy, because you're doing something that somebody really needs."
Gray is involved in a program to encourage physicians all over the state to discuss end of life care with their patients and encourage them to fill out Physician Orders for Scope of Treatment forms, which gives them the option to choose what end of life treatment they desire.
"This is a big initiative that we're part of," Gray said. "Who wants care that they don't desire? Who wants aggressive measures that they weren't prepared for?"
Blue Ridge offers an extensive bereavement program, and according to community liaison Linda Roberts, the hospice is hoping to encourage everyone to take advantage of their services and not see hospice as something to be feared.
"We'd really like people to start considering hospice earlier, rather than waiting until it becomes crisis-oriented," Roberts said. "We can do so much more to make them comfortable and help them if we're in there earlier."
Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or firstname.lastname@example.org