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Friday, October 17, 2014

5 Necessary Traits for Palliative Care Social Workers

In discussions with palliative care social workers, there is a sense that we are afforded somewhat unique opportunities in medical social work. Although we work closely with other social workers in the medical setting, we have a different relationship both with patients and families and with other medical teammates. There are many traits that the palliative social worker needs to be able to demonstrate in order to be effective in his or her role. Here are five of those:

1. A learner’s mind. As medical social workers, we are well served if we continue our learning beyond the classroom and into palliative care practice. We need to be able to synthesize medical knowledge and connect it to our social work skills. We also need to be able to translate this “foreign language” into lay-speak. In palliative care, this includes relaying disease course, coaching patients through scary internet searches, and guiding families through uncomfortable conversations, like telling someone that their son might not die for a few days after the breathing tube comes out.

2. Flexibility. We need an ability to learn about various psychosocial interventions and how they can be creatively applied to the palliative care population. We need to know how the mind and body interact and need to flex how we apply this information to patients and families exhibiting signs of stress. We also need to be flexible with the tools in our toolbox. If something isn’t working, we need to be prepared to switch strategies at a moment’s notice.

3. An ability to change masks. We need to be both gentle and direct with our patients and families based on their needs in the moment. This involves building trust in a short amount of time and being honest throughout interactions. Within our organizations, we need to be able to move between the bureaucratic world and the world of medicine, all while keeping our clients’ best interests in mind.

4. Selfishness. We need to be able to attend to our own self-care and create balance in our lives. We are great at coaching and supporting others through their moments of crisis, but we must also attend to ourselves in order to sustain our health and practice what we preach.

5. A voice. It is a given that we need to advocate for our patients and families. However, we also need to speak up for ourselves to prove our worth and value to the team and other practitioners. We need to be leaders in our organizations, not just in social work, and we need to ask for more than just leadership tasks. We all have graduate degrees, and many of us are licensed and hold advanced certification in the field.

If you are a palliative care social worker (or want to become one), how can you cultivate these traits?

• Connect. You do not practice in a vacuum so see what other social workers in the field are doing. Utilize resources such as the Social Worker’s in Hospice and Palliative Care Network (SWHPN) or listservs such as SW-PALL-EOL.

• Reach out. Ask questions of the group or of individuals.  Look back in archives to see what has been talked about before and who might be a good contact for you on a specific topic.

• Stay current. Keep up with articles in and around the field. We have a great journal in the Journal of Social Work in End of Life and Palliative Care, but there are other journals out there that are relevant, so expand your parameters.

• Seek supervision. Who else in your community/practice/organization can share their experience with you and help you reflect on your interactions? I think you’ll find that palliative care social workers are a helpful bunch and most of us want to raise the bar on the field, not raise ourselves above it.

If you are looking for a palliative social worker, what are some questions you can ask about these traits?

• How do you stay current in your field?
• What is a creative intervention that you have used or would like to try?
• How do you build trust with your clients?
• What do you do for self-care?
• How will you be a leader on this team?

Another way to ask about these traits might be to present a case example and ask the social worker how he or she might demonstrate these traits with this patient or in this circumstance.

Overall, your questions for the social worker should seek to challenge the social worker to think on his or her toes just as this person would in practice.

In the end, whether you are looking to be the best social worker you can be or find the best social worker you can find, the field of palliative care is one that is filled with creative energy and poised for advances. Palliative social workers are in a position to enhance both the palliative care and social work fields through their key roles on interdisciplinary teams. These traits can serve as a place to start that creative drive and push our skills beyond the basics.

Allie Shukraft, MAT, MSW is a pediatric palliative care social worker in Charlotte, NC where she loves reading and walking with her dogs. Although she is still learning how to use it, you can find her on Twitter (@alifrumcally).

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