What is a palliative care social worker and what do they do?”.  It’s a question that gets asked regularly and is one that can elicit a variety of answers depending on the person being asked and the setting in which the role operates.

As an Association we’ve attempted to summarise below what we believe are the core elements of the role and the skills that characterise the people that perform it.


Palliative care social workers are registered social workers that work predominantly or exclusively with people living with terminal illnesses. Social work is core to palliative care. With the other multi-disciplinary professional team surrounding the person and those important to them, the social worker ensures that services and interventions take account of the whole person as well as their family, whatever that means for them.

The setting for this kind of social work can be diverse and challenging. We are employed differently in each area; by the NHS, by Adults and Children’s services, by independent hospices, and disease specific charities, and are often funded with money drawn from several different sources. We work with anyone that has a palliative care diagnosis, be that because of cancer, respiratory or heart failure, motor-neurone disease or HIV/AIDS or anything else. We work across boundaries and are often the link between health and social care, for the people that we work with and our professional colleagues. Palliative care social workers offer teaching and training opportunities to health and social care colleagues and students through their own organisations education departments and also through university training courses. We are actively involved in research, innovation, and development, and are committed to building the evidence base of our specific area of practice.

Specialist palliative care social workers can offer a wide variety of support to both the person and those that are important to them. This can include sourcing practical help at home, accessing other services, advice around debt or income maintenance, help with housing, advocacy, working with schools or employers, or offering psychosocial support. Palliative care social workers are often skilled in therapeutic work, be it systemic family therapy, counselling or cognitive behaviour therapy. We often work with groups as well as individuals. We have a keen interest in working alongside people with lived experience and including others in how we shape our services and practice for the future. We undertake work around helping people to prepare for the end of their lives through advance care planning and psychosocial interventions. We provide bereavement care for people who need more specialist support.

The overarching theme of this kind of work is to continue to see whole people living within whole families rather than as an individual with a set of specific problems to solve. We seek to understand the connections of life and support people as they come to terms with what is happening to them or someone close to them, and support them to continue to live as they choose for as long as they can. The combination of skills offered by specialist palliative care social workers makes a unique contribution to the psychological and social aspects of the multi-disciplinary professional team.

For more information please look at ‘The role of social workers in palliative, end of life and bereavement care’ (2016), a resource we have written and published with support from British Association of Social Workers and Hospice UK, and which is accessible in our Resources section.