Medical Social Services

What role do social workers have in hospice and palliative care? 

As a profession, social work is dedicated to the empowerment, self-determination and advocacy of individuals and families in all walks of life.  In the medical world, social workers play a vital role on an interdisciplinary team to help insure that the needs and wishes of the patient and family members involved are being considered and respected as various treatments and options are evaluated and weighed.   

Hospice is a service that focuses on the quality of life and comfort of the individual who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, but also embraces the needs and grief of the family.  As a result of this “whole person” approach, social workers are a natural fit within the hospice interdisciplinary team.  They are trained to evaluate the strengths of individuals and to consider the emotional, psychological, social, spiritual and physical needs of individuals as they work to validate, encourage, and empower all who are involved in the care of  the individual with a terminal illness.  The primary objective of the medical social worker in hospice care is to enhance the quality of life of individuals, families, and caregivers during a very stressful and emotional time. 

How do social workers enhance quality of life? 

End of life issues are, to be sure, both complex and emotionally intense.  Social workers are experts in helping individuals and families normalize and steer through the challenges that come at the end of life, and to help those individuals recognize within themselves the strengths and coping skills needed to adjust to the changes that death and dying bring.   

Quality of life in times of crisis and adversity is maximized when people are able to find strength within them to endure, and few events in life require more strength and endurance than losing a loved one or facing our own death.  The feelings and the journey through grief is different for everyone.  As a result of this truth, social workers meet people where they are in their unique experience of grief and loss, walk with them through that adversity, and help them to feel empowered and capable during a time when people can often feel hopeless, overwhelmed, and lost. 

Individuals and families often struggle with intense emotions during the time that a loved one is dying from a terminal illness.  Social workers are expertly trained in helping to open up communication about difficult issues and concerns.  They can help to relieve some of the strained emotions that result from bottled-up feelings and concerns and can provide education to alleviate fears and uncertainties.  In addition, social workers are well-informed about community resources that can be accessed to help with various psychosocial, financial, or emotional problems.  

Social work services commonly provided in hospice and palliative care: 

  • Counseling for individuals and families
  • Family/team meetings
  • Crisis and grief counseling
  • Provision of information and education
  • Multidimensional interventions regarding pain and symptom management  
  • Relaxation techniques
  • Deep breathing
  • Cognitive and behavioral interventions for anxiety and depression
  • Support groups, bereavement groups
  • Decision-making and the implications of various treatment alternatives
  • Resource counseling (including caregiver resources; alternate level of care options such as long-term care; financial and legal needs; advance directives; VA benefits, etc.)
  • Client advocacy/navigation of systems