Hospice and palliative care social workers assist those who are nearing the end of life and those who are living with chronic illnesses. They also offer support to their families. This support can take many forms. It may mean making sure that patients have access to the resources that will make them as comfortable as possible physically. It may mean providing for their emotional and even spiritual needs. Social workers may act as navigators and care coordinators. They help patients and families understand their options, identify services they need, and fill out the necessary paperwork. They also help them fill out other important forms like advanced directives.
Palliative and hospice social workers may lead support groups and provide in-service training to other professionals who are involved in the treatment process. They may also teach patients nonpharmaceutical techniques for managing pain. Palliative care and hospice care are related, but not quite the same. Some people transition from palliative care to hospice when they are in the final stages of an illness, but this is not the only pattern. Not all who receive palliative care are near death.
Social workers may enter the palliative and hospice field with degrees at either the bachelor's or master's level. Their education and credentialing allow them to function across settings and to serve a wide variety of people, not just those with terminal illness or severe chronic illness. However, they can specialize by choosing palliative and hospice settings for practicum work and post-degree practice. They may opt to further their knowledge of the field through continuing education and/or additional academic coursework.
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Some specialty programs are available only to those who have completed post-master practice. However, there are resources for all. The Social Work Hospice and Palliative Care Network provides a listserv for social workers in these fields. The SWHPCN site also links to courses on other sites that are applicable to social workers in hospice or palliative care; they are offered in a variety of subjects from coordinating end of life care to helping schoolchildren cope with grief and loss. A practitioner can also find practice care standards from various organizations and even a list of textbooks that have been written by social workers.
The National Hospice & Palliative Care Organization also offers continuing education and resources. There is, of course, overlap between social work with the critical ill and palliative care. Some palliative and hospice social workers will find a resource in the Association for Oncology Social Workers.
Master's level social workers are licensed. In many states, baccalaureate social workers are licensed as well. Palliative and hospice social workers can pursue additional voluntary certification. The NASW Certified Hospice and Palliative Social Worker (CHP-SW) credential is for licensed bachelor level social workers who have 3 years’ experience in palliative or hospice and have done relevant continuing education. There is also an advanced hospice and palliative credential for those at the master’s level. Social workers at either level must adhere to the NASW Standards for End of Life Care.
Palliative social work is a field where the rewards and costs aren't easily measurable in dollars -- or even in all the typical measures of client satisfaction. NASW lists, in an occupational profile, redefining client success among the challenges of hospice work.
A person who is up for the challenge can make a solid living, and higher levels of education do tend to increase salaries. The NASW Workforce Center reports that MSWs employed in hospice and palliative have a median salary of $49,500 while those with BSWs average $39,700. Those who define their practice area as health tend to have salaries slightly above those who define it as aging.