Palliative Care Social Worker Certification

Palliative Care Social Worker Certification
Gaining certification in palliative care demonstrates to employers, patients, colleagues, and the general public that a professional has met high standards of practice and has obtained third-party validation of their expertise. Image from Unsplash
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Angela Miller September 23, 2022

You need a state license to practice palliative care social work in the US. Many employers look for additional certifications that demonstrate your expertise and commitment to the field.

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Palliative care social workers address the needs of those dealing with serious, life-limiting conditions, including those with terminal illnesses. They advocate for patients and ensure that their voices are heard throughout varying treatment processes and stages. Where legal, they can play a supporting role in providing clients a death with dignity

As we continue to see an increase in the United States elderly population–by 2040, there will be more than 80 million older persons–the need for qualified palliative care social workers should grow significantly. If this career path appeals to you, know that pursuing a relevant degree and certification can set you apart in your job search.

So, what palliative care social worker certification will you need to work in this field? This article addresses that question and discusses:

  • Palliative care vs. hospice social worker
  • Palliative care social work training
  • Palliative care social worker career path

Palliative care vs. hospice social worker

Although the terms hospice and palliative care describe two different models of care, they bear many similarities. Both hospice and palliative care social workers aim to improve the quality of life for patients and their families. The primary difference between the two lies in the timing of treatment.

According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), hospice social workers are trained, licensed professionals who help both patients and families work through social, emotional, and physical challenges toward the end of life.

At some point in the trajectory of an illness, it may not be possible to cure a disease; hospice is designed for this scenario. Patients choosing hospice care understand that their condition may no longer respond to certain medical treatments, such as chemotherapy. In hospice, attempts to cure a person’s illness are stopped; the purpose of treatment primarily revolves around symptom relief. Hospice is typically end-of-life care, geared toward those who have six months or less to live.

The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO) explains: “Hospice care provides an alternative to therapies focused on life-prolonging measures that may be difficult, be likely to cause more symptoms, or are not aligned with a person’s goals.”

Palliative care, on the other hand, may be sought at any point throughout a patient’s serious illness. It can be a suitable choice for those living with conditions including, but not limited to:

  • Cancer
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Dementia
  • Heart failure
  • Parkinson’s disease

Palliative care social workers seek to prevent or relieve pain, which can be physical, psychosocial, or spiritual, and other symptoms associated with severe illness. Palliative care professionals often play a critical role in patient transfer to hospice care.


“I Want to Be A Social Worker!”

There are a couple of significant practical considerations:

- A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in social work
- A license to practice or required social work certification

Credentials vary among careers, states, and territories. Licenses include:

- Certified Social Worker (CSW)
- Clinical Social Work Associate (CSWA)
- Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW)
- Licensed Advanced Social Worker (LASW)
- Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW)
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
- Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW)
- Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
- Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP)
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)

Most of these licenses require a Master’s or Doctorate, along with additional coursework or clinical internships. (source)

A survey of 2017 social work graduates by the National Social Work Workforce Study found that social workers with Master’s degrees and Doctorates made substantially more than those with no advanced degree. (source)

- People with MSW degrees made $13,000-plus more than those with only BSW degrees
- MSWs make more in large cities or urban clusters
- People with doctorates earned $20,000 to $25,000 more than people with only MSW degrees

University and Program Name Learn More

What does a palliative care social worker do?

Palliative care social workers enhance the quality of life for patients and their families as they endure life-limiting illnesses. They collaborate with other healthcare professionals to provide pain and symptom management, as well as emotional and spiritual support. The core principle of palliative care centers around the belief that each of us has the right to live and die free of pain and with dignity. It also hinges upon the belief that families should receive the necessary support to allow patients to do so.

Palliative care social workers spend much of their time interacting with clients in in-home visits, inpatient settings, or office consultations. They also check in via phone conversations and connect clients with related resources.

In a typical day, palliative care social workers will likely manage a caseload of patients with varying needs. They may:

  • Perform initial and periodic holistic assessments for patients enrolled in care management
  • Provide ongoing clinical, behavioral, and social assessments, as appropriate
  • Initiate care conferences to discuss care team responsibilities, patient progress, and new issues
  • Collaborate with multidisciplinary teams to revise care management plans when changes occur
  • Partner with patients and their families to communicate and improve care planning
  • Perform chart reviews for patient burden, risk factors, functional status, social issues, and more
  • Participate in regular team meetings and peer review activities
  • Identify gaps in care and engage care team members to determine patient needs
  • Promote patient wellness and improved quality outcomes, effective utilization of health services, and appropriate social work interventions for patients and caregivers
  • Utilize care management concepts, principles, and strategies to assist patients in the achievement of treatment goals
  • Determine and complete referrals for patient care
  • Serve as a liaison to providers, patients, families, and caregivers to coordinate services
  • Maintain up-to-date documentation in the electronic health record and any related patient documents

Palliative care social work training

Gaining practical experience is an important part of the palliative care social work learning experience. Social work degree programs require extensive practicums; palliative care social work students should seek theirs in a hospice or palliative care setting. In addition to the practicum, you can also seek out a paid internship or fellowship and earn college credit and a paycheck at the same time.

Academic degrees

The qualifications needed to work as a palliative care social worker typically include, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree in social work. Professionals may also choose to further their education with a Master of Social Work (MSW) or even a Ph.D. Social work degree programs typically emphasize courses in social welfare policy, human behavior, ethics, and include hands-on clinicals or practicums.

Social work master’s degrees are offered both on campus and online at many colleges and universities. If you’re looking for a flexible, online master’s degree program in social work, consider:

  • Tulane University: Tulane is part of a select group of leading research universities in the United States and Canada called the Association of American Universities. The school offers both a Master of Social Work and a Doctorate in Social Work (DSW). You’ll gain clinical and community-based practice training to empower individuals, families, and communities. Students can complete the MSW in as few as 16 months or four semesters, while the DSW can be completed in as few as seven semesters or three years. Both programs are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education’s Commission on Accreditation.
  • Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work__: VCU is the only program in Virginia that offers bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in social work. It offers an online Master of Social Work that allows you to complete your degree at your own speed. As the top-ranked school of social work in Virginia, VCU places online learners in real-world field experiences to complement their coursework. With an average class size of 25 students, the program prepares professional social workers as practitioners, scholars, and leaders.


Gaining certification in palliative care demonstrates to employers, patients, colleagues, and the general public that a professional has met high standards of practice and has obtained third-party validation of their expertise.

The National Association of Social Workers offers a Certified Hospice and Palliative Social Worker certification for those with bachelor’s degrees. It also offers an Advanced Certified Hospice and Palliative Social Worker certification for master’s level social workers. The Social Work Hospice and Palliative Care Network offers an Advanced Palliative Hospice Social Worker certification for those with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Palliative care social worker career path

Most people who enter the field of social work are guided by a desire to help others. Palliative care social workers aim to help people during the most trying and vulnerable times in their lives.

Those equipped with a bachelor’s degree in social work may choose to begin their careers in hospice or palliative care settings including nursing homes and assisted living facilities. They also may work in patients’ homes, helping to ensure they have access to appropriate medical care and relevant comforts.

Social workers equipped with master’s degrees can offer counseling services as clinical social workers. Those who offer therapy services typically also need to obtain licensure: licensed master social worker (LMSW) or licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). Social workers with an LCSW can apply clinical services in therapy for clients.

As a career in palliative care social work progresses, professionals will gain relevant knowledge, insight, and experience to eventually manage and mentor entry-level social workers. They may also eventually assume senior-level roles in administration or drive policy within their organizations and beyond.

Regardless of the path you choose, it’s safe to assume that palliative care social workers will have many employment opportunities as the need for qualified professionals continues to surge.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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