How Palliative Care Social Workers Support Patients With Terminal Illnesses

A palliative care professional works with a family to address the needs of a patient.

Confronting a life-threatening illness poses perhaps one of the most challenging experiences individuals and their families can encounter. During such a time, fear, pain and bereavement can feel overwhelming. However, skilled palliative care can offer comfort and valuable guidance that enhance patients’ quality of life. Palliative care aims to address the physical, psychosocial and spiritual aspects of care so that patients and their families can find meaning in the face of their struggles, as well as relief from pain.

A palliative care social worker acts in conjunction with other care providers to ensure that patients with life-threatening illnesses receive the help they need to live as actively as possible despite their conditions. They also work with patients’ families, giving them the tools to cope with their grief and information to deal with practical concerns.

This line of work requires a special set of skills and knowledge that advanced degrees in social work can cultivate. Virginia Commonwealth University’s Online Master of Social Work, which features a supervised practicum, trains practitioners in evidence-based approaches that allow palliative care social workers to provide meaningful support to terminally ill patients and their families.

Job Duties and Responsibilities of Palliative Care Social Workers

Palliative care social workers play an instrumental role in helping patients with life-threatening illnesses come to terms with the difficulties of disease and the prospect of death. In most cases, this requires social workers to guide patients and their families through a mix of shock, disbelief and sadness. They perform a number of tasks that address the emotional and physical needs of patients and their families, such as the following:

  • Helping patients and their families understand treatment plans and the potential pain interventions available
  • Attending to the mental health needs of patients through counseling while also looking out for the mental health needs of families and caretakers
  • Helping patients work through the existential and spiritual questions that life-and-death issues can evoke
  • Ensuring that patients receive care sensitive to their unique needs and concerns by helping care providers understand the cultural aspects that may come into play when treating patients

Patients also need assistance addressing practical issues. Life-threatening illnesses can create problems related to finances and insurance, as well as draw out legal concerns. Palliative care social workers assist patients and their families in this regard and direct them to important resources. When treatment options fail and patients are facing death, palliative care social workers also help guide patients and their families through the delicate process of planning the end of their lives.

Palliative Care vs. Hospice Care

Palliative care and hospice care each serve critical roles in helping patients and their families navigate the challenges presented by life-threatening illnesses. Palliative care begins when patients first learn they are encountering a life-threatening illness. It works alongside curative therapies meant to prolong life, even though the goal of palliative care itself is not to postpone death. Instead, palliative care aims to relieve the pain and distress associated with disease.

Hospice care refers to when the goal of treatment shifts away from controlling an illness and toward facilitating comfort prior to death. Some hospice patients may have exhausted their curative treatment options, while others may have elected not to undergo further treatment. In such situations, hospice care provides patients with comfort care meant to manage symptoms.

Challenges to Providing Invaluable Care

The intensity of palliative care can provide professionals with a profound sense of satisfaction. However, while palliative care social work offers an opportunity to grow personally and professionally, it also causes stress and carries a tremendous responsibility. The prospect of dying provokes a complex range of emotions. It can even bring out fear and anger from unresolved traumas that occurred earlier in a person’s life. Therefore, palliative care social workers must recognize the activation of old traumas distinctly from the existing trauma of the illness at hand. In addition, the sense of helplessness, loss of control and impending danger terminal illnesses can trigger in patients make them vulnerable and potentially oppositional to accepting the care they need. Palliative care develops therapeutic approaches that help reduce stress and return a sense of control and well-being to patients.

Patients and their families need information on highly sensitive issues that are difficult to broach but can have a huge impact on whether a person is able to die how he or she chooses. However, engaging in discussion can also provide information that alleviates some of the suffering. For example, helping patients understand options such as dying at home may provide a great sense of relief and quell fears. Addressing the positive and negative aspects of CPR and DNR (do not resuscitate) orders, as well as a patient’s right to refuse treatment that may only prolong a painful dying process, also allows terminally ill patients and their families the chance to thoughtfully direct an important part of their lives.

Becoming a Palliative Care Social Worker

Palliative care social workers must possess key skills and competencies, as well as substantial knowledge in several areas in order to perform duties, which range from coordinating patient care to providing in-service training to other care providers.

Education Requirements

Attaining entry-level work as a palliative care social worker requires at least a Bachelor of Social Work (B.S.W.) or a bachelor’s degree in a related field such as psychology. However, bachelor’s degree graduates may be limited to pursuing positions such as assistant to a care provider.

To broaden their potential job opportunities in palliative care, social workers need to earn a Master of Social Work (M.S.W.). This degree typically takes two years to complete, but Virginia Commonwealth University’s Online M.S.W. can be completed in as little as 16 months.

Earning an M.S.W. has notable benefits for those interested in pursuing careers in palliative care social work. Specifically, the coursework gives students the opportunity to examine practice-informed research, as well as participate in fieldwork that can build their skills in core areas of social work and develop specialized knowledge.

Key Skills and Competencies

Excellent communication skills lie at the heart of social work. Palliative care social workers must not only communicate effectively and listen to their patients but also communicate with health care teams and advocate on behalf of their patients. The stressful nature of palliative care requires empathy, patience and problem-solving skills to anticipate patients’ needs. In addition, the work demands superior organizational skills to coordinate care between members of health care teams; keep track of resources available to patients; and stay informed of details such as veteran benefits, insurance policies and cultural needs.

Palliative care social workers must also possess competencies in the following areas:

  • Psychotherapy. Patients experiencing extreme pain require sophisticated mental and emotional tools for dealing with trauma. Palliative care social workers with an understanding of psychotherapy are able to guide clients toward resources and other professionals who can help.
  • Conflict mediation.. Life-threatening illnesses present many uncertainties. As a result, family members may disagree with how to best handle care and treatment. In addition, a patient or family member may come into conflict with a care provider. Palliative care social workers can help lead family members through a dispute resolution process to reduce tension and foster understanding.
  • Patient care planning. Palliative care social workers assess their patients to determine the type and level of support that will be most beneficial. They then present options to their patients and help them decide how to proceed.
  • Palliative care philosophy. A holistic approach is at the core of palliative care. Therefore, palliative care social workers must competently respond to the spiritual, emotional, social, physical and cultural needs of patients to address their suffering.
  • Advocacy. The unique position of palliative care social workers gives them access to information about patients that other care providers might not have. As a result, they must use this information to skillfully advocate on behalf of their patients. This can ensure patients are treated with sensitivity, culturally and otherwise.
  • Crisis intervention. Treating a disease can follow a routine course, but different crises may arise. When they do, palliative care social workers must provide patients and their families with the tools to manage crises both during and after the event.

Cultural Competency

Palliative care social workers serve patients from diverse cultural backgrounds. Therefore, they must cultivate cultural competency to provide effective palliative care. Taking into consideration the values, perspectives, languages and concerns of patients can avoid misunderstandings and improve the overall care delivered. Understanding such factors as cultural beliefs and attitudes toward death can prove critical when building trust between patients and care providers. It may also greatly influence the decisions patients and their families make regarding pain management and other end-of-life choices.

Job Growth and Salary

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the job market for palliative care social workers, considered health care social workers, to grow 17% between 2018 and 2028, much faster than the 5% average growth rate for all occupations. Palliative care social workers earn a median annual salary of $49,000, as of May 2018, with salaries ranging from $31,000 to more than $81,000.

Explore the Benefits of Earning a Master of Social Work

Patients and their families must grapple with intense emotions, physical pain and practical concerns. However, the skilled support and guidance from palliative care social workers can provide great relief during one of life’s most challenging times.

Those inspired by the opportunity to provide comfort to those battling life-threatening illnesses should consider the benefits of earning an Online Master of Social Work from Virginia Commonwealth University. Discover how the M.S.W. trains graduates to enter the rewarding field of palliative care social work.