What Is a Palliative Care Social Worker?

A palliative care social worker is a caregiver who provides advice and access to social services for families of people who have been diagnosed with severe illnesses during all stages of those illnesses, from the earliest detection through death and burial. There are five main duties for any palliative care social worker: assessment, training and counseling, followed by staff support and serving as a liaison between the client and community resources. More personal and individualized in focus than the typical social worker, the palliative care social worker provides long-term, specialized holistic care to aid a sick person in all possible ways, whether by helping to ease pain, mitigate symptoms of illness, access cures or find physical and psychological relief.

Beyond simply recommending standard healthcare programs and services, a palliative care social worker might also help patients find alternative therapy, church services and leisure activities that can increase quality of life. They might also help with estate planning, wills and advanced preparations for funerals. These social workers provide extensive all-around service, so palliative care social workers are most needed for people who have acute, recurring and usually terminal illnesses and require consistent attention on a regular basis.

Typically, a palliative care social worker is part of an organized palliative team and thus does not have to juggle all these duties alone. The social worker instead balances out a team that might include nurses, doctors, psychiatrists and other professionals. A unique value of the social worker to the team is that a palliative care social worker, by virtue of training and experience, typically is skilled in how to add a personal, delicate touch to traumatic situations, allowing families and children to feel more at ease. Social workers can help the team understand any cultural or social influences that might be affecting how patients respond to care and what kinds of treatment the family prefers.

Palliative care social workers usually begin working with patients by interviewing the patients, their relatives and even their friends. After gathering a patient's history, the social worker can then create a case study that the palliative care team can use to design intervention in ways that will help everyone involved in the patient’s life. Many healthcare systems have in-house palliative care units in place with full-time palliative care social workers whose teams serve several families at a time. Serious and terminal illnesses that often require the use of a palliative care social worker include cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).

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