Mastodon Palliative Care Social Work: A Year of Leadership ~ Pallimed

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Palliative Care Social Work: A Year of Leadership

by Vickie Leff (@VickieLeff) and Allie Shukraft (@Alifrumcally)

It has been an amazing year for those of us who are palliative care social workers. The 4th edition of National Palliative Care Guidelines, published this fall, adding several psychosocial focused domains to the list of best care practices.1 Many of the 8 domains specifically highlight the expert skill set of social workers on the interdisciplinary team. Palliative care social workers were delighted to see these highlighted in the guidelines. Palliative Care teams work best when they allow members to practice to the top of their license. Although there is often overlap, especially in the arena of psychosocial care, social workers are usually the backbone of providing these services.

We saw the FIRST advanced practice, evidence-based certification for palliative care & hospice social workers open for testing in January 2019: a significant step for social workers in a concerted effort to be recognized and respected for our work within the field. The APHSW-C certification was the result of years of work, spearheaded by Barbara Head and the leadership of Social Work in Hospice and Palliative Network (SWHPN). Comprehensive, evidence-based standards were developed and reviewed by experts in the field.2 The result is a pathway for pc and hospice social workers to validate their special skill set, which may, over time, lead not only to increased validity but more leadership and financial opportunities. Hopefully, this advanced practice certification will lead to increased financial opportunities such as pay increases for those with the certification, as well as creating the potential for inpatient palliative social workers to bill for their services, and increased opportunities outpatient billing.

While this acknowledgment and use of the social work skill set is a great step forward, we still often struggle to “prove our value” to many medical teams, some of them even our own. We cannot bill for our inpatient services, unlike other team members, and this has often led to needing to assert our skills and impact perhaps louder than others (I have a particularly “loud” reputation!). Many PC teams still don’t have a PC SW, or are understaffed by national standards.3 It’s a difficult problem, funding a position that cannot generate direct revenue. However, more and more data point the important role of psychosocial care, as evidenced by the 2018 guidelines. We know intuitively, the expertise of the social worker impacts the quality of care for our patients. Sometimes it’s harder to prove this to the folks who are responsible for the bottom line.

Another, more general, opportunity for growth for social workers in the coming year is a shift in where we see some palliative care programs “owned” within health care systems. As Palliative Care moves into the realm of population health including outpatient and home services, there will likely be more social workers in program and administration leadership positions, helping their teams and programs with these initiatives. This focus is perfect for the social work perspective of “person in environment”, first named by Mary Richmond, social worker in 1917. We see transition points in the framework of systems theory, which naturally assesses the patients’ needs in the context of where they are, meeting those needs and anticipating interventions going forward. As palliative care programs move into this home space, we encourage their use of the long-standing and well developed social work theories about how people adapt, change and cope. These skills will serve to enhance our palliative care efforts for the patients, families and our colleague providers.

Another accomplishment for palliative social work at the beginning of the year was the publication of an incredible resource for the health social worker released in 2019: Palliative Care: A Guide for Health Social Workers. Edited by B. Sumser, M. Leimena and T. Altilio, Oxford Press. The outstanding collection of authors lend their expertise to complicated theoretical frameworks, clinical interventions, case examples and a variety of overarching issues related to providing the best care to patients and families. Undoubtedly, this new book will become the teaching resource for social work academic and field work to guide health social workers when working with seriously ill and/or dying populations.

Finally, this year has seen an incredible increase in social workers in palliative care and hospice providing a variety of strategies and interventions to cope with compassion fatigue and burnout. One of the best articles came from Emily Browning on debriefings in the ICU.4 The debrief model has been used in social work for quite some time and translates extremely well to helping our colleagues with moral distress, increasing social support, decreasing isolation – all factors that impact one’s desire to leave the field.

For more Pallimed posts on Social Work, click here. For more posts by Vickie Leff, click here. For more posts by Allie Shukraft, click here.

Allie Shukraft, MAT, MSW, LCSWA is a reformed high school English teacher turned pediatric palliative care social worker with Carolinas Healthcare System in Charlotte, NC. She enjoys spending time with her family, trying out new recipes, and exploring the country whenever she can. You can find her on Twitter @Alifrumcally.

Vickie Leff, LCSW, BCD is the clinical social worker for Palliative Care at Duke University Hospital. She uses running and humor (not always at the same time!) as her primary coping mechanisms. You can follow her on Twitter @VickieLeff


1. Ferrell B, National Consensus Project Clinical Practice Guidelines for Quality Palliative Care Guidelines, 4th Edition. Journal of Palliative Medicine. 2018;2018.

2. Glajchen M, Defining Core Competencies for Generalist-Level Palliative Social Work. Journal of Pain and Symptom Management. 2018;2018.

3. Spetz J, Dudley, N., Trupin, L., Rogers, M., Merier, D., Dumanovsky, T. Few Hospital Palliative Care Programs Meet National Staffing recommendations. Health Affairs. 2016;35(9).

4. Browning E. Reflective Debriefing: A Social Work Intervention addressing Moral Distress among ICU Nurses. Journal of Social Eork in End of Life & Palliative Care. 2018;14(1).

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