Hospice social workers help people with end of life needs. They provide support for the dying as well as for their families and loved ones.
Since hospice social workers interact with sick patients they’ll often be expected to take on a more direct role in regard to medication and health support. Thus hospice social work can be the ideal field for a social worker who enjoys working in the medical field.
The role of a hospice social worker
One of a hospice social worker’s primary roles is to interface with the family and provide a level of support and explanation that other medical staff might not be able to offer. For example, a hospice social worker will typically know their patient’s medical history, as well as the most current medications and treatments.
A hospice social worker can then convey all of this information to the family, acting as a de-facto interface between the doctors, medical staff, and the family. While a patient is in hospice, usually a hospice social worker is the person the family speaks to more than anyone else.
Within a hospital setting a hospice social worker will typically strive to get the patient sent home where they’ll be more comfortable. To accomplish this a hospice social worker may need to find treatment facilities and rehabilitation clinics close to the patient’s home that they can visit. They’ll also inform the family of their role and what special medical needs a patient may have. If a patient cannot be sent home a hospice social worker may place them in a suitable nursing home.
Other smaller roles may include,
- Connecting a struggling family with local or federal resources to help them care for a hospice patient
- Helping to create a symptom management plan to make a hospice patient as comfortable as possible
- Helping a family to navigate the intricacies of the medical system as well as interface with their insurance company and/or Medicare and Medicaid as needed
- Referring a family to grief counselling
- Helping with funeral planning
In terms of education level, most hospice social workers will be expected to have a master’s degree in social work. While some positions may be available for those with a bachelor’s degree, the position will typically be lower paid and will not offer the same level of autonomy, for example, the candidate will work under increased supervision.
Picking the right master’s program
Similar to a forensic social worker, aspiring hospice social workers are unlikely to find many dedicated degree programs. Instead, most students interested in hospice social work can pursue a master’s of social work (MSW) degree. While studying for their masters a student can look for opportunities to specialize in the field of hospice social work.
- An internship in a hospice center will be a great way to gain hands-on practical experience, as well as increase the candidate’s likelihood of finding a job in a hospice center after their graduation.
- Many masters programs offer electives having to do with hospice care and a student interested in the field should be sure to take as many relevant electives as possible.
- Outside of the university, a candidate can attend conferences and seminars related to hospice care. Hospice care facilities recognize that they can’t expect job applicants to have a degree that doesn’t exist. What hospice facilities do look for, however, is an enthusiastic applicant who has furthered his or her education in the field of hospice care.
In addition, some hospice social workers recommend that students take a course in death and dying if possible.
For those students who need more flexibility or who would like to save money, it’s possible to take an online master’s in social work course. These online programs, provided that they’re offered by an accredited institution, can offer the same great education as an in-class program. A certified online program combined with a good internship can give the candidate everything they need to start a great career in hospice social work.
Where Hospice Social Work is Done
Hospice social workers may be expected to work in several different locations.
- Hospice centers – This is the most common type of facility where a hospice worker will find employment. Hospice centers are dedicated medical centers for hospice patients and typically have a different atmosphere than a hospital.
- Inside of a hospital – Hospitals which have a palliative care department will typically employ one or more hospice social workers. The difference between working in a dedicated hospice center and in a hospital is that patients in a hospital typically remain for only a short duration. Thus a hospice social worker in a hospital may meet more patients without getting to know many of them that well, as opposed to a hospice center where the social worker will know each patient very well.
- At home care – Finally, hospice social workers may perform home visits to check in with patients recently released from a hospital or hospice care center. In some cases a hospice social care worker may make a home visit, in other cases a hospice social care worker may be employed by a company that focuses exclusively on home visits. In this case a hospice social worker will work exclusively in a patient’s home.
The life of a hospice social worker
For those interested in pursuing a career as a hospice social worker it may be interesting to hear some firsthand accounts from people in the field. BJ Miller is a palliative care physician who works in a hospice center in San Francisco. His interview with Tim Ferriss is highly informative.
Vitas Healthcare also has a good resource, an account of what the average day looks like for hospice social worker Judy Weisenfeld. Unlike BJ Miller, Weisenfeld works in a hospital hospice ward so a large part of her job is helping the patient to return home, or to move to a long term hospice care center.
Hospice social worker career outlook
The job outlook for hospice social workers is actually quite good. According to the BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics), the employment of social workers is, “projected to grow 11 percent from 2018 to 2028, much faster than the average for all occupations.” The career outlook for social workers in general is quite good but it’s even better for hospice social workers. 10,000 baby boomers are retiring every day and as that population ages there will be an increased demand for hospice social workers.
For those interested there is a great BLS map which shows the number of healthcare social worker jobs per state. Although hospice social workers should generally find favorable employment conditions wherever they go, certain states may have a shortage of social workers and could be expected to pay a higher salary.
Hospice social worker salary
The only reliable resource with data unique to a hospice social worker is PayScale. According to their data the average hospice social worker salary is $51,281. This data coincides nicely with BLS data which shows that the median pay for a social worker in 2019 is $50,470 a year. This breaks down to an average hourly salary of $24.26.
If there is one downside to this data it is that it’s based on national averages. Throughout the United States there are significant differences in the cost of living and the salaries paid by various cities reflect those price differences. For example, Indeed.com reports that the three highest paying cities for social work are Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and Houston.
The Indeed data also shows that the average salary for a social worker in America for 2020 is $59,417. While this data indicates a higher salary than the BLS data, it could be the result of giving more weight to salaries from higher paying regions.
A world of good
Hospice social workers can do a world of good for the patients who they serve. By improving end-of-life care a hospice social worker can make a difficult time less traumatic and easier to bear for everyone.
Over the course of their career hospice social workers will learn what patients and families need most and provide them with support whether it’s financial, emotional or just a reassuring word. The best way for someone who is interested in becoming a hospice social worker to begin their career is by researching the master’s degree programs available to them in their area.