Guide to Becoming a Hospice and Palliative Care Social Worker

Hospice and palliative care social workers work alongside medical workers to provide end-of-life care for patients. If you decide to pursue this challenging and rewarding branch of social work, you may need additional training and certification depending on your educational background. Below, we provide you with some resources to help you pursue your career as a hospice and palliative care social worker.

What is a Palliative and Hospice Social Worker?

Palliative social work and hospice social work have subtle, usually overlapping distinctions. Hospice social work is a category within palliative care that specifically deals with end-of-life care for people with terminal illnesses. Palliative care may or may not deal with people suffering from terminal illnesses; the focus is on managing symptoms rather than curing a condition that might be incurable. 

Your day-to-day responsibilities in this field will vary. In general, social workers in palliative care settings help all parties—patients, medical professionals, families—communicate with each other.

Steps to Become a Palliative Care and Hospice Social Worker

Below are some common steps to become a palliative care and hospice social worker:

1. Complete Your Social Work Education

A common first step to becoming a palliative care or hospice care social worker is obtaining an appropriate background in generalized social work education at an accredited school. For some entry-level jobs, a bachelor’s degree in social work or a related major, such as psychology, is sufficient; some jobs in the social work field (such as aides) may only require a high school diploma. More commonly, however, social workers obtain a Master of Social Work (MSW) to meet state licensing guidelines.

2. Gain Fieldwork Experience

Education may need to be supplemented with fieldwork, which both BSW and MSW programs will likely require. Specifications for required hours will vary by state, requirements such as these are not uncommon.

3. Apply for and Pass the ASWB Exam

To obtain a social work license, you likely will need to pass a licensing exam administered by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB).

4. Apply for Licensure

Once you pass your ASWB exam and scores are sent to your state of practice, you may then apply for state licensure as a licensed social worker.

5. Pursue Employment

Finally, you will need to look for work in palliative care or at a hospice. You may already have contacts through your fieldwork; otherwise, you can search for jobs using keywords such as “hospice social worker,” “end-of-life social worker,” or “palliative care social worker.”

Should I Become a Hospice Social Worker?

If you have already decided you would like to become a social worker, you should evaluate other branches of social work before you settle on your social work career. Social workers deal with all kinds of societal issues, and their specializations may include foster care, education, homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse. Social workers may also choose to focus on the same problem from different scales—for example, a substance abuse social worker could work one-on-one with people with addiction issues, or help develop programs to treat addiction.

You should also evaluate the type of social work degree you’d like to pursue. Careers for those with a BSW will vary from careers for those with a Doctorate of Social Work (DSW).

Degree Programs for Hospice and Palliative Social Workers

Most people interested in earning a social work degree after their bachelor’s education may then choose to earn a Master of Social Work (MSW). There are different types of master’s degrees that meet different needs. Some of these include:

  • Master of Social Work (MSW) programs: These are what you typically think of when you think of graduate school – in-person classes, on a campus. These can provide networking and teaching opportunities that online MSW programs don’t have.
  • Online MSW programs: These are particularly good for those who don’t live near a major university, or who already have a full-time job and want the flexibility of online classes.
  • MSW programs with no GRE requirement: For many master’s degree programs, applicants need to take the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE), a lengthy standardized test. MSW programs without this requirement can save you time when you’re applying for schools.
  • Advanced standing MSW programs: These are for people who studied social work or a related field in their undergraduate education. These degrees can be completed more quickly than a traditional MSW program.

You can also apply for Doctorate of Social Work (DSW) programs, which take longer to complete and are more challenging but necessary for many academic and research-oriented social work jobs.

Skills Needed for Hospice and Palliative Care

Though the skills you will use may vary from job to job, there are some skills that all hospice social workers and palliative social workers would do well to learn, retrieved from the National Association of Social Work (NASW) Social Workers in Hospice and Palliative Care Occupational Profile (PDF, 4.6 MB):

  • Counseling and psychotherapy
  • Providing psychosocial education
  • Facilitation of advance care planning and lifespan planning
  • Crisis intervention
  • Conflict mediation
  • Patient advocacy
  • Interdisciplinary communication

What is the Role of a Hospice Social Worker?

Hospice social workers act as advocates for patients and their families dealing with end-of-life decisions, emotions and medical care. Social workers can also ensure that patients and families get the care they need beyond physical care—making sure they have a connection to their communities, for instance, or have appropriate mental health treatment. This can mean that hospice social workers sometimes act as facilitators between a patient and other resources and organizations.

Work Settings of a Hospice Social Worker

Typically, these kinds of hospice and palliative social workers work in a hospice—a hospital alternative focused entirely on end-of-life care. The amount of palliative care programs in hospitals has been rising since 2000. Nursing homes and assisted living facilities also hire palliative care workers. Additionally, many palliative social workers work in more traditional homes, helping to ensure that patients have access to appropriate medical care and other necessities and comforts.

How Much do Hospice Social Workers make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median pay of all social workers is $51,760 per year—though the BLS doesn’t break down this median pay by specialization, and your salary may vary based on location. You will want to consider your potential salary as a social worker when applying for graduate programs, some of which may cost as much as your expected annual pay.

Hospice Social Work Certification

Licensing requirements vary by state. The two types of licenses you may find are licensed master social worker (LMSW) and licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), the difference generally being that social workers with an LCSW can apply clinical services in therapy for clients. To obtain one of these licenses, social workers must pass their appropriate ASWB Social Work Exam.

There are additional certifications social workers can receive that are specifically for palliative care and hospice social work. For instance, the NASW offers a Certified Hospice and Palliative Social Worker (CHP-SW) credential, as does the Center to Advance Palliative Care (CAPC). This certification is not a requirement to work in palliative care and hospice social work, but it can be useful for job seekers and those who wish to further hone their skills.

Hospice Social Work Resources

Hospice social workers have dedicated and established professional organizations that can assist them throughout their careers. Some of these include:

Information on this page was last updated in June 2021.