How To Become a Palliative Care Social Worker (With Steps)

Palliative care deals with complex medical conditions, intensive care coordination and therapeutic services for people with terminal or chronic illnesses. Palliative care social workers bring peace of mind and dignity to patients and their families during these …

How To Become a Palliative Care Social Worker (With Steps)

Palliative care deals with complex medical conditions, intensive care coordination and therapeutic services for people with terminal or chronic illnesses. Palliative care social workers bring peace of mind and dignity to patients and their families during these medical difficulties. They achieve this through building a career based on academic and profession training, a solid self-care plan and a strong support network. In this article, we discuss what a palliative care social worker is and does, how to become a palliative care social worker and the workplace environment, job outlook and salary for palliative care social workers.

What is a palliative care social worker?

A palliative care social worker is a specialized type of social worker who assists patients and their families, when they’re terminally ill or living with a chronic illness. This type of social worker is very similar to a hospice social worker, but there is a distinction. Hospice social workers specialize in assisting people when they are nearing the end of life or in the last stages of an illness. Some people will end up transferring from palliative care to hospice care, but that is not always the case since not all palliative care patients are near death.

Palliative care social workers act as care coordinators to help patients and their families navigate terminal and chronic illnesses by providing physical, emotional and spiritual support. Palliative care patients may get medical treatments, but the treatments will not cure the illness. Rather, the medical treatments help to manage their terminal illness symptoms or the debilitating or painful symptoms from a chronic incurable illness. Hospice care patients typically have under six months to live and receive services along with palliative care. So a hospice social worker works in palliative care, but a palliative care social worker doesn’t work in hospice care.

What do palliative care social workers do?

Palliative care social workers help people cope with the aspects of a serious illness, like enjoying the best quality of life as possible, facing mortality and the process of dying. They provide patients and their families with personalized support and help them manage the physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual challenges of living with a terminal or chronic illness. Palliative care social workers are in a unique position to help people identify, live with and try to answer core existential questions.

Some of the major responsibilities of palliative care social workers are:

  • Creating an individualized patient care plan

  • Conducting psychosocial assessments

  • Providing counseling and psychotherapy

  • Intervening in crisis situations with the patient

  • Coordinating all types of care for the patient

  • Educating the patient and their family about:

    • Treatment plans

    • Support systems

    • Resources

Some of the primary duties of palliative care social workers are:

  • Making sure patients have access to resources

  • Providing for patients’ mental, social, emotional and spiritual needs

  • Helping patients and their families to understand their options

  • Identifying services the patient and their family need

  • Filling out paperwork like advanced directives with the patient and their family

  • Leading support groups and providing training to others involved in the treatment process

  • Teaching patients techniques for managing their pain

How to become a palliative care social worker

Social workers can earn bachelor’s or master’s degrees which, along with the proper credentials, allows them to work with a wide range of people in a variety of settings. Social workers who choose either a palliative or hospice specialization get special training through post-degree practice and practicum work. Additional academic coursework and continuing education classes provide them with ways to further specialize their knowledge. They must prepare themselves academically, professionally and emotionally for the complexities of caring for patients.

Here are the general steps for becoming a palliative care social worker:

1. Earn a degree

Palliative care social workers must have a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) or a master’s degree in social works (MSW). The Council for Social Work Education (SCWE) must accredit the bachelor’s or master’s degree program. Common coursework for these general social work degrees includes:

  • Sociology and human behavior

  • Social welfare policies

  • Social justice

  • Working with people and families

  • Group practice methods

  • Research

Most schools don’t offer a social work degree specifically in palliative or hospice care. Social work students who want to specialize in palliative care should take as many relevant classes as possible to learn about and specialize in palliative care knowledge like:

  • Gerontology

  • Aging and family

  • Death and dying

  • Grief and bereavement

  • Social work in health care

  • Social work and spirituality

  • Ethics and legal issues

Some students choose to continue their education with a doctoral degree in social work (DSW) or a Ph.D. in social work. The DSW focuses on practicing social work and preparing social workers for administrative or leadership positions. The Ph.D in social work focuses on research and preparing social workers for research or academia positions.

2. Gain experience

Gaining hands on experience with palliative care social work is a critical part of the learning process. Most social work degree programs require a practicum, and students specializing in palliative care can seek to do their practicum in a palliative or hospice care setting. Students can also seek field internships or fellowships in palliative, hospice and medical care settings during their graduate or undergraduate work. There are also professional opportunities to gain experience, like working in a health care facility.

3. Get licensed

Most states require social workers to obtain a license when working with clients, for research, in academia or administration. Some states license social workers with a bachelor’s degree, while other states only license social workers with a master’s degree or higher, so it’s important to check your state’s unique requirements for licensure. Many states also require specific continuing education courses to keep licensure current. Obtaining licensure typically requires getting a licensed bachelor of social work (LBSW) or licensed master of social work (LMSW) from the Association of Social Work Board. This normally includes:

  • Paying a fee

  • Submitting academic transcripts

  • Passing an exam

4. Get voluntary certificates

In addition to state licensure, there are various voluntary certificates that social workers can earn. Employers don’t typically require these certifications, but earning them is a marker of distinction. These certifications demonstrate advanced skills in a particular area and can lead to competitive positions or an increase in salary. Here are some examples:

  • The National Association of Social Workers has a Certified Hospice and Palliative Social Worker certification for bachelor’s level social workers.

  • The National Association of Social Workers has an Advanced Certified Hospice and Palliative Social Worker certification for master’s level social workers.

  • The Social Work Hospice and Palliative Care Networks has an Advanced Palliative Hospice Social Worker certification for both bachelor’s and master’s level social workers.

Work environment for palliative care social workers

A palliative care social worker typically works during regular daytime business hours with an average of 40 hours per week. There may be some occasions where they need to work evenings or weekends in order to provide support to their patients and their families. Palliative care social workers typically spend part of their day visiting patients at their homes or in the hospital, and part of their day working at a desk to organize files or make phone calls.

Palliative care social worker job outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is a collective and trustworthy source for career outlook information. While the BLS doesn’t have information specifically for palliative care social workers, it has information for social workers in general, which encompasses all types of social workers, including palliative care. According to the BLS, social workers can expect an employment growth rate of 13% from 2019 to 2029. This growth rate is much faster than the average growth rate for all occupations.

Palliative care social worker salary

The salary for a palliative care social worker varies depending on the level of education, amount of experience, geographic location, specific industry and job market demand. With palliative care social work, higher levels of education usually equate to higher salaries. In the United States, the average salary for all types of social workers is $60,204 per year.