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Palliative Care Social Workers: Supporting Patients With Terminal Illnesses

December 11, 2023

Confronting a terminal illness poses one of the most challenging experiences individuals and their families can encounter. During such a time, fear, pain and sadness can feel overwhelming. However, professionals who provide 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.

Palliative care social workers apply the profession’s principles to those facing serious or end-of-life scenarios. This can make it possible for all of those impacted by the situation to achieve peace of mind during these difficult times.

Achieving success in this line of work requires a special set of skills and knowledge that an advanced degree program in social work can cultivate. A Master of Social Work Program trains practitioners in evidence-based approaches that allow palliative care social workers to provide meaningful support to patients with terminal illnesses and their families.

What Are Palliative Care Social Workers?

A palliative care social worker provides coping strategies for people facing terminal illnesses so that the individuals may retain the best quality of life possible. They may also be involved with home health care or rehabilitative care. They utilize social work tactics and methods to achieve their goals. They strive to connect individuals with the services they need to help them with their physical pain, emotional stress and spiritual questions. They may also act as advocates to help patients obtain sufficient access to these services. Additionally, they can become educators who provide as much information about potential resources as possible.

Palliative care social workers do not necessarily take on these tasks alone. They can act in conjunction with other care providers to ensure that patients with terminal illnesses have access to the resources they need to live as actively as possible. They also work with patients’ families, providing them with tools that can help them cope with their grief and information to deal with their practical concerns.

Palliative Care Social Worker Job Description

Palliative care social workers play an instrumental role in helping patients with terminal illnesses come to terms with the difficulties of their condition and the prospect of death. In some cases, this involves guiding 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 the 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 that is sensitive to their unique needs and concerns by helping their care providers understand the cultural, religious and other aspects they need to consider

Patients also need assistance addressing practical issues. Terminal 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 a patient is receiving end-of-life care, palliative care social workers also help guide patients and their families through the delicate process of planning the next steps.

Palliative Care vs. Hospice Care

Palliative care and hospice care each serve critical purposes in helping patients and their families navigate the challenges presented by serious and/or terminal illnesses. Palliative care begins when patients first learn they are encountering a serious or terminal 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 the condition.

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 their symptoms. Palliative care social workers may help people make the transition into hospice care; when this transition occurs, the person’s case may transfer to a hospice care social worker.

Challenges to Providing Palliative Care to Patients With Terminal Illnesses

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 in a person. It can even bring up fear and anger from unresolved traumas that occurred earlier in the person’s life. Therefore, palliative care social workers must recognize the activation of old traumas as distinct from the existing trauma of the illness at hand. In addition, the sense of helplessness, the loss of control and the impending danger that terminal illnesses can trigger in patients can make them feel vulnerable and potentially unwilling to accept the care they need. Palliative care social workers can develop therapeutic approaches that help reduce their patients’ stress and allow them to regain a sense of control and well-being in their lives. This may include facilitating grief support or caregiver support as needed. 

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

Palliative Care Social Worker Salary

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) groups palliative care social workers within the health care social worker classification. For this category, BLS lists the median annual salary at $60,280 as of May 2022. A few factors may shape the precise salary an individual receives in the role. This can include their education level and years of experience. Job location may also be a factor, as someone working in an area with a high cost of living may earn more than a person working in an area with a lower cost of living.

The BLS predicts solid job growth for the profession, projecting 10 percent growth for the health care social worker category between 2022 and 2032. This is significantly higher than the average 3 percent job growth the BLS projects for all professions.

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 their 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 should consider earning a Master of Social Work (M.S.W.). This degree typically takes two years to complete, but Virginia Commonwealth University’s M.S.W. online program format 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 to participate in field education that can build their skills in core areas of social work and develop specialized knowledge.


Licensure is required for social workers in most states. The precise licensure requirements vary by state. A B.S.W. may be the benchmark requirement in some states, while in others it may be an M.S.W. Once an individual obtains licensure, they may be required to take specific continuing education courses to keep the license current. Individuals need to seek out the precise licensing requirements in their intended state of practice so they can sufficiently prepare to meet their requirements.

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 among 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. Serious and terminal illnesses present many uncertainties. As a result, family members may disagree on how to best handle the patient’s 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 to them. 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 their 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 them 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 be able to provide effective palliative care to all their patients. Taking into consideration the values, perspectives, languages and concerns of their patients can help them avoid misunderstandings and improve the overall care delivered. 

Understanding such factors as patients’ 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.

Make a Difference as a Palliative Care Social Worker

Patients with serious or terminal illnesses 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 them with great relief during one of life’s most challenging times.

Individuals inspired by the opportunity to provide comfort to these patients and their families should consider the benefits of the Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) online program format from Virginia Commonwealth University. Our program prepares students to enter the field of palliative care social work by helping them refine the knowledge and skills to guide patients and their families through these difficult times. Learn how we can help you get ready to make a positive difference when it is needed most.


Reviewed by Amy Kemter, D.S.W., LCSW.*

*Amy Kemter, D.S.W., LCSW, is a clinical social worker and professor of social work. She has a practice in San Antonio, Texas, specializing in the treatment of trauma and addiction disorders.