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Palliative Pioneer Byock Set to Retire from DHMC

Ira R. Byock, MD, Director, Palliative Medicine. (Courtesy Dartmouth-Hitchcock)

Ira R. Byock, MD, Director, Palliative Medicine. (Courtesy Dartmouth-Hitchcock)

Lebanon — The director of palliative medicine at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center is leaving his job and heading west to Montana, where he plans to indulge in some fishing and spend time with his family.

A national voice in the discussion around end-of-life care, Ira Byock will leave his position at DHMC at the end of the month, the hospital announced last week.

Byock, 62, has been at DHMC for 10 years. He has no immediate plans to work at another institution and said he and his wife are looking forward to being closer to their two adult daughters and grandson who live on the West Coast.

“As we start to look at this next phase of our lives, realizing that our program (at DHMC) is strong, the palliative care program is continuing to grow and develop, the institution strongly supports the palliative care program and gets it in so many ways, that in fact this is a good time professionally for us to refocus on the personal priorities in our lives,” Byock said in a video interview produced by DHMC and posted on its website. “That’s what I counsel and help other people do who I see as patients. It’s sort of time for us to take stock and look at what’s really most important in our lives.”

As director of palliative medicine, Byock has focused on how to alleviate suffering for patients and been an advocate for the rights of patients who are at the end of their lives.

He is the author of several books, including Dying Well, which has become standard reading for hospice care providers. His latest book, The Best Care Possible, explores the crisis that surrounds dying in America and offers his ideas on how to transform end-of-life care.

The hospital has not yet hired Byock’s replacement, said hospital spokesman Mike Barwell.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock CEO Jim Weinstein complemented his colleague’s work and wished him well.

“Ira became a nationally recognized figure for his compassionate work, but he never lost the opportunity to thank the members of his team,” Weinstein said in an announcement to staff several weeks ago. “He could have worked anywhere, but he was always quick to state proudly that he worked here at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. For someone who has tended to others so selflessly, I cannot say thank you enough.”

Like other hospital systems throughout the nation, Dartmouth-Hitchcock has gone through some difficult transitions as it adjusts to reforms in health care. In the last couple of years, it has struggled with Medicaid funding cuts, there have been early retirement buyouts, layoffs, an overhaul of its electronic medical records, and more recently, a change in the pension benefits for employees.

While acknowledging the challenges ahead for DHMC, Byock said he believed that the institution was “on the right path” and would benefit in the long run from some of the difficult decisions hospital officials have made.

“I am a firm believer that we’re on the right path in this institution,” he said in the video. “These are admittedly stressful, difficult times. They are for everyone in health care. But because of the decisions that have been made, we’re likely to benefit several years earlier than the institutions that haven’t quite gotten on the path to moving in a population health, shared risk, quality parameter.”

Byock has been involved in hospice and palliative care since his medical residency at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco in 1978, according to his website, DyingWell.org.

During the 1990s, he was a co-founder and principal investigator for the Missoula Demonstration Project, a community-based organization in Montana dedicated to the research and transformation of end-of-life experience in that area.

It is to Missoula where Byock and his wife plan to return. They own a home there and will be closer to their daughters, one of whom lives in Portland, Ore., and the other in Los Angeles.

When not traveling or seeing family, Byock said he plans to fish.

“I’m a trout whisperer,” he said. “I’m going to go out and whisper to some trout, maybe entertain them with frothing the top of a trout stream while they laugh at my efforts. I’m going to spend a lot of time with my legs in the water.”

Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.