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Monday, March 22, 2021

On the Value of Social Work in Palliative Care

by Vickie Leff (@VickieLeff)

Another year, another study proving the value of the palliative care social worker. Edmonds et al (2021) found that when a social worker was involved in a palliative care consultation, whole-person care components were more likely to be addressed, including addressing psychological (82% vs 18%) and spiritual needs (92% vs 8%) and documenting advance directives (90% vs 10%). This adds to what we already knew: involvement of social work impacts quality of care and patient satisfaction (Auerbach, 2007; O’Donnell et al., 2018).

It surprises me that despite much research and team role development, palliative care team members may not be aware of the importance of the palliative care social worker. And yet, as a Hospice Social Worker, in the year of the pandemic, I was considered non-essential. I was not the only one. Around the country, I heard stories of many palliative care and hospice social workers being sent home. Unfortunately, many articles had to be written this year arguing that the social worker is essential (Guerrero 2020; Lipe 2020; Abrams 2020; Gewirtz 2020). Still, so many of us continue to be asked: What does a palliative care social worker do?

If what you know about social workers comes from TV you would think we primarily work for child protective services. If all you know of us is what you see in your ambulatory clinic you might think a social worker is only helpful for ordering a patient oxygen or a rolling walker. These misconceptions are common. After all, the profession of Social Work is represented in many different fields of practice. Our educational training varies and there are many levels and degrees one can have to be called a social worker.

There is a wide range of variation for social work practice in the healthcare setting. Hospitals have social workers as case managers doing discharge planning; some are employed as behavioral health specialists, substance use experts and counselors, and population health managers; some clinical social workers are on Palliative Care teams providing extensive psychosocial care; and some are cognitive behavioral therapy experts in the outpatient setting. Quite a wide gamut. This broad range of practice is both a strength and a challenge for the social work profession because it can make it difficult for others to understand our value.

As March is social work month, let’s spend some time reflecting on the value of social work within the palliative care team. So here is what we do…. (this is not all inclusive!)

Broadly, we provide psychosocial care to patients and families. We are mental health providers who are trained to facilitate family meetings, manage family dynamics, and assess and treat anxiety and depression. We provide counseling to patients, children, and families. We assess for pain, spiritual needs, and advocate for a clear plan of care. We have advance care planning conversations and help to locate resources for patients and families.

We have an expert understanding of the social determinates of health and engage in cultural curiosity, often helping reframe concerns for our team members. For instance, we interpret medical information for the patient and family (think of your patients asking, “What did they just say?”). We coach surgeons prior to a “difficult” conversation, sharing our insight about family dynamics, use of language, and culture to guide them. We listen to the moral distress from bedside nurses in ICU units, offering strategies for well-being. We are often the team member who takes responsibility for team wellness and reflection, helping our colleagues identify their own reactions to difficult cases.

Palliative care social work has come a long way. Like our physician and nursing colleagues, we now have our own evidence-based certification: the APHSW-C. We have a national organization of 1,000 members – the Social Work Hospice and Palliative Network (SWHPN) and over 10 social work fellowships across the country, to train post-masters social workers in specialty level palliative care.

All palliative care team members listen with their own attention, intention, and biases. That is surely the beauty of working as a team, learning and depending on each other to provide the best care. As Rosa, suggests, we have an opportunity, right now, to become transdisciplinary teams “co-creating a unified framework for delivering palliative care that transcends disciplinary perspectives.” (Rosa, 2020) This transcendent palliative care team requires that we all commit to having a shared understanding of each other’s value. While social work may be a large umbrella, our role in serious illness care is clear and rooted in data. Please stand with us and use your voice to tell others about our value: We are crucial members of the palliative care team and we are essential.

For more Pallimed posts by Vickie Leff, click here.

For more Pallimed posts about social workers, click here.

Vickie Leff, LCSW, APHSW-C is the Executive Director of the Advanced Palliative & Hospice Social Work Certification Program; she is also an Adjunct Instructor at the UNC School of Social Work, Chapel Hill. She still thinks that running a 6 hour marathon is actually a really good finish time.


Abrams, L. S., & Dettlaff, A. J. (2020). Voices from the Frontlines: Social Workers Confront the COVID-19 Pandemic. Social work, 65(3), 302–305.

Auerbach, C. (2007). Evidence that Supports the Value of Social Work in Hospitals. Social Work in Health Care, 44(4), 17–32.

Edmonds, K. et al (2021). An Exploratory Study of Demographics and outcomes for Patients Seen by Specialist Palliative Care Social Work in the Inpatient Setting at an Academic Center. Journal of Pain and Symptom Management.

Gewirtz, R. (2020) As I See It: Social Workers are Essential personnel; So, why aren’t we talking about them? Retrieved from:

Guerrero, L., Avgar, A., Phillips, E., Sterling, M. (2020). They are Essential Workers now, and should continue to be: Social Workers and Home Health Care workers during COVID-19 and Beyond. Journal of Gerontological Social Work.

Lipe, L. (2020) Social Workers are Essential Workers. Retrieved from:

O’Donnell, A. E., Schaefer, K. G., Stevenson, L. W., DeVoe, K., Walsh, K., Mehra, M. R., & Desai, A. S. (2018). Social Worker-Aided Palliative Care Intervention in High-risk Patients With Heart Failure (SWAP-HF): A Pilot Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Cardiology, 3(6), 516–519.

Rosa, W. et al (2020) Coronavirus Disease 2019 as an Opportunity to Move toward Transdisciplinary Palliative Care. Journal of Palliative Medicine, 23(10), pp. 1290–1291.

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