As medical director of Palliative Care Services for St. Vincent Healthcare, Dr. Katherine Dietrich helps her patients deal with the numerous symptoms related to the serious diseases for which they are being treated.

Many people associate palliative care with patients who are being treated for cancer, or those who are in constant pain. But Dietrich treats people with heart conditions, lung diseases, kidney failure and a host of other conditions.

“For a lot of people, the first question they ask is, ‘Am I dying?’ But that’s a very common misconception,” Dietrich said.

In reality, many of her patients survive for years. “You can always do one more test, procedure or medicine, but it doesn’t mean that’s what’s best for that particular person.

“My job is to help translate the medical jargon and figure out what’s important to that person, and guide them into the decisions they want to make,” she said.

“We improve patient access to community resources to support them in their home environment. In addition, we focus on goals of care and work toward directing medical treatments and procedures to improve a patient’s quality of life,” she said.

Dietrich said she became interested in palliative care during her medical residency, after she got to know a doctor who specialized in it. “He did such amazing work. He was able to get people home, and he helped them with things like pain management, and that kind of inspired me to go into that line of work.”

After completing her residency, Dietrich was medical director for a hospice program in Prescott, Ariz. Then the opportunity to move to Montana came up.

What’s the biggest challenge you face in your job?

Palliative care is a very new specialty and there is a common misunderstanding that palliative care is hospice care. Hospice care refers to the last six months of life, whereas palliative care can occur at any stage of the chronic disease process. In palliative care, we often work together with other physicians in oncology, cardiology and other specialties to manage symptoms during the treatment of disease. One of my major challenges is improving public knowledge and understanding of our specialty and increasing access to the care that we provide.

What’s the best business advice you have received? Everyone has value.

Who gave you that advice? Neal Sorensen MD

Here’s what I’d like to do to improve my community:

I would like to bring more attention to the need for advance care planning. Most people who become critically ill have never discussed their wishes with their family or filled out any advance care planning documents, such as a POLST, Five Wishes, or living will form. We know that their family members face difficult medical decisions in circumstances that are already stressful. 

Outside of work, my biggest passion is:

My family and friends. I love spending time with my husband, my parents, my sister, and my dogs. I travel at least once a year to see my best friend and godson in Germany.

Which living person do you most admire?

My mother. 

Aside from profit and loss, how do you measure success in your job?

I am so fortunate to work in a profession with so much inherent value in the work itself. Success for me often means getting patients out of pain or allowing them more time at home with their family. Improving a patient’s quality of life is always my goal and how I measure myself as successful or not.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

I am torn between running 100 miles at one time and completing medical school and residency. Both required significant preparation, dedication to the process and an intense emotional journey. However, running 100 miles only lasted about 24 hours, though, at times it felt like forever. Medical school and residency took a lot longer, but there were many times during the 30 hour calls where the days bled into each other. Both were tough. Both were absolutely worth the effort.

I’m happiest when I’m… in Germany with my best friend, my husband and a good beer.

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