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Doctor shortage affecting local hospices

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LEXINGTON, N.C. -- With a growing population of older Americans, the need for more end-of-life care is growing too. But it's a field doctors just aren't going into.

"There simply not enough physicians that specialize in hospice and palliative medicine," said Dr. Jennifer Davis, medical director for Hospice of Davidson County. "I do think it's a calling to do this kind of work, you have to have a lot of compassion, communication skills and excellent skills to keep [patients] comfortable."

To help fill the gap Dr. Davis has turned to medical residents.

"To see all the people that are involved in it, all the experiences that patients are going through -- it's no longer a black box that you don't know where you are sending these patients to, you actually see it," said Dr. Tony Nguyen, a resident from Wake Forest School of Medicine working at Hospice of Davidson County.

Dr. Nguyen believes no matter what specialty a doctor may go into, all students can benefit from working in hospice care. "Hopefully new doctors such as myself can rise to that occasion," he said. "For those who don't choose that specialty, at least they can get exposed to it so they can help those patients make informed decisions, make them feel a little more comfortable."

According to AAHPM, a professional organization for hospice and palliative medicine physicians, between 8,000 to 10,000 physicians specialists are needed to meet the demands of hospice nationwide, but only about 4,500 are specializing in the field.

By having more residents working here, Dr. Davis hopes it will help more see the joy that comes from helping those at the end of life. A specialty many doctors may have to provide anyway as the aging population grows.

"Because of the shortage our primary care physicians in the community, our hospitals are going to end up doing hospice and palliative care at least at a basic level because there is not enough specialists to take care of the aging population."