Who is a Hospice Social Worker?

March is National Social Workers month and we figured one of the best ways to celebrate is to share an article about the Social Worker role in hospice. Hospice provides quality, dignified and compassionate care for a person and their loved ones during a person’s final days of living. A Social Worker’s professional values and skills are a perfect match with hospice and palliative care programs, which are designed to treat the whole person in an interdisciplinary manner to enhance quality of life during challenging times.

When a hospice social worker visits an individual and his or her loved ones in hospice, she or he begins by completing a comprehensive assessment. The individualized assessment assists the social worker in understanding the needs, strengths and goals of the patient and family, as they cope with the effects of progressive illness, dying and death. Social Workers are able to build trust and a relationship with the patient and family, during a time of crisis and vulnerability. With this understanding and trust established, the social worker can best help the family manage this difficult experience.

Hospice social workers help meet a family’s basic needs by educating and advocating for the patient and family. The hospice social worker is a certified medical social worker (MSW) who has had specialized training in end-of-life care. Social Worker roles may include counseling and support to deal with loss, grief and bereavement before the death; helping patients and families deal with stress and conflicts; providing palliative care techniques for distressing symptoms such as depression, pain and anxiety; addressing ethical dilemmas; and providing visits and collaboration with hospice team members. They are concerned with enhancing quality of life and promoting well-being for patients, families, and caregivers.

In the hospice setting, the social worker may help with any number of the following:

  • Symptom Management. Physical symptom management, such as relaxation exercises to help with nausea or pain, is just one example of the services that social workers provide.
  • Psychological and Spiritual Stress. Psychological/spiritual stressors such as anxiety, guilt, or depression can be addressed and managed through counseling (including emotional support), education, or short-term psychological techniques.
  • Advance Care Planning. Assistance with advance care planning to ensure that all treatments meet the wishes of the people receiving care is also within the purview of social work intervention. Advance care planning entails making decisions about treatment in end of life care and funeral planning, and communicating this with loved ones and in legal documentation.
  • Ethical Dilemmas. Ethical dilemmas (such as withdrawing or withholding treatment) may also arise, and social workers are adept at problem solving, advocacy and facilitating the proper resources to find solutions that are helpful for each family.
  • Financial Stress. Financial concerns are often an issue at the end of life, and this is another area where social workers are extremely knowledgeable and successful at helping people navigate resources such as health insurance coverage, medical costs, and bills, or accessing disability income.
  • Grief and Bereavement. Coping with loss and the ensuing grief process is another area in which social workers are well versed. Dealing with the intense emotions associated with grief can be overwhelming without the proper support and information. Social workers have information and skills that help facilitate grief and help people avoid obstacles that can lead to more complicated reactions like depression.

Typically, one social worker is assigned to a patient to provide continuity of care. The social worker will build a relationship with the hospice patient and their support system and assist in areas of need they identify together. Allegiant Hospice also has a social worker on-duty for urgent patient and family needs that may come up after-hours as well.