Social Work Palliative Care
Shirley Otis-Green
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0158


Palliative care is an emerging medical field characterized by attention to the improvement of quality of life and function for those with serious or progressive illness. It is an inherently interdisciplinary field dedicated to the relief of suffering (whether physical, social, psychological, or spiritual in nature), with a holistic, person-centered, and family-focused perspective, and attentive to cultural diversity and the value of relationship as a prerequisite to empathic communication. Palliative care has a systems perspective—recognizing the interconnectedness of the patient, family, and community. Primary palliative care interventions include providing emotional support, counseling, care planning, and family conferencing. Palliative care is essential at times of transition, such as when there are changes in treatment, prognosis, or setting. Although not limited to those facing end of life, palliative care is especially vital during this time of increased vulnerability. Palliative care is a broad philosophical approach to care that includes hospice and bereavement care, and it should be delivered concurrently with treatment for advanced illness. As the population ages and the current health care system becomes ever more costly, the philosophical foundation of palliative care is increasingly viewed as offering an alternative approach to the current fragmented and bureaucratic US medical model. Palliative care providers seek to expand access to personalized, quality care and create a more just and sustainable health system. All of these factors make palliative care a natural fit for social work. Palliative social workers are involved in all aspects of the expanding field of palliative care—as clinicians, educators, researchers, and policymakers—where they contribute their systems expertise and advocate for improved delivery of care. Many of the publications reviewed in this bibliography stem from work supported in part by the Social Work Leadership Development Awards, funded by the Open Society Institute’s Project on Death in America, whose leaders have been especially prolific and have made great progress in moving the field forward.


There is an increasing number of resources available that provide an overview of the skills and competencies of palliative social work. Altilio and Otis-Green 2011 offers a comprehensive overview of the field of palliative social work and is designed as a companion to the series of Oxford palliative texts for medicine and nursing. Berzoff and Silverman 2004 focuses more specifically on social work care at the end of life and into bereavement, while Bern-Klug 2010 highlights the role of palliative social work within the nursing-home setting. The last three works offer supplemental teaching tools and curriculum development guides. Csikai and Chaitin 2006 offers insight into the social work role in ethical decision making at end of life, while Csikai and Jones 2007 is a compendium of palliative and end-of-life resources for educators. Wolfer and Runnion 2008 offers a variety of narratives useful for educating about the complexities of end-of-life decision making.

  • Altilio, T., and S. Otis-Green, eds. 2011. Oxford textbook of palliative social work. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/med/9780199739110.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    This comprehensive text begins with a review of the historical context to provide a foundation for the subsequent sections that explore the settings where this work is practiced, the populations served, ethics, and the collaborative nature of palliative social care. Global perspectives are represented and there are chapters on professionalism, leadership, research, education, policy, and self-care. Chapters conclude with additional resources and learning exercises.

  • Bern-Klug, M., ed. 2010. Transforming palliative care in nursing homes: The social work role. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

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    Bern-Klug’s work recognizes the need to address the concerns of the aging population and offers an important and timely resource. The chapters in this edited text provide a detailed account of the challenges and joys of this work. Regulatory concerns, limited resources, and attention to self-care make this book particularly useful. An appendix provides a range of additional resources.

  • Berzoff, J., and P. R. Silverman, eds. 2004. Living with dying: A handbook for end-of-life healthcare practitioners. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

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    This classic handbook explores the theoretical and clinical concerns of palliative social work at end of life and into bereavement. Many of the contributors are Project on Death in America social work leaders and experienced educators, clinicians, and researchers. This important work set the stage for subsequent palliative social work texts.

  • Csikai, E. L., and E. Chaitin. 2006. Ethics in end-of-life decisions in social work practice. Chicago: Lyceum.

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    Two leading social workers share a wide range of ethical concerns related to end-of-life decision making, with attention to offering practical guidelines for clinical care. This volume is useful as a supplement for course work in this field and includes many useful tools and resources.

  • Csikai, E. L., and B. Jones. 2007. Teaching resources for end of life and palliative care courses. Chicago: Lyceum.

    E-mail Citation »

    The textbook is designed to supplement coursework at both the bachelor and master’s level and includes sample curriculum, class assignments, exercises, supplemental materials, and a wide range of annotated resources to guide further learning. A rich variety of patient narratives are integrated throughout the materials. The editors of this educational text are both Project on Death in America social work leaders, as are many of the contributors.

  • Wolfer, T. A., and V. M. Runnion. 2008. Dying, death and bereavement in social work practice: Decision cases for advanced practice. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    This text offers a series of patient narratives that highlight specific decision points in end-of-life and bereavement practice. The contributing social workers have created composite situations that assist the learner in identifying opportunities for improved care. Development of many of the narratives was supported in part by the Project on Death in America Social Work Leadership Award.

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