Discussion 2: Social Work in Palliative Care Palliative care refers to specialized medical care that focuses on providing relief from physical symptoms and

Palliative care refers to specialized medical care that focuses on providing relief from physical symptoms and improving the quality of life of patients and caregivers. Palliative care can be provided to patients with any medical condition at any stage of illness to relieve symptoms. It can be a patient’s primary treatment (which is often the case with end-of-life care), or it can be provided in combination with standard medical treatments. Palliative care team members work alongside a patient’s medical team and can include professionals from multiple disciplines, including doctors, nurses, social workers, and chaplains.

To prepare for this Discussion:

Think about the circumstances, timing, payment, and other features related to palliative care.

Post a description of perceptions of palliative care from the perspective of a:

  • Patient
  • Caregiver
  • Social worker
  1. Then, explain the roles of social workers in providing palliative care. 
  2. Compare and contrast the fundamental differences between palliative care and hospice care. 
  3. Explain medical conditions where you might consider palliative care over hospice care for a patient. 
  4. Justify your position. Use examples to illustrate your case.

Be sure to support your postings and responses with specific references to the resources and the current literature using appropriate APA format and style.

Original Article

Creating social work competencies for
practice in hospice palliative care

Palliative Medicine

24(1) 79–87

! The Author(s), 2010.

Reprints and permissions:

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DOI: 10.1177/0269216309346596

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Harvey Bosma School of Social Work, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Meaghen Johnston School of Social Work, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Susan Cadell Lyle S Hallman Faculty of Social Work, Wilfrid Laurier University, Kitchener, ON, Canada
Wendy Wainwright Victoria Hospice, Victoria, BC, Canada
Ngaire Abernethy Mental Health Services for the Elderly, Brandon Regional Health Authority, Brandon, MB, Canada
Andrew Feron Parkwood Hospital, St Joseph’s Health Care, London, ON, Canada
Mary Lou Kelley School of Social Work & Northern Ontario School of Medicine, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, ON, Canada
Fred Nelson Palliative Care Program, Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, Winnipeg, MB, Canada

Abstract

Social workers play an important role in the delivery of Hospice Palliative Care in many diverse settings. The profession

brings a unique perspective to end-of-life care that reflects and supports the holistic philosophy of Hospice Palliative

Care. Despite the prominent and longstanding position of social work in this area, the role and functions of social

workers had not been clearly defined. A Canadian task group of social work practitioners and educators utilized a

modified Delphi process to consult front line clinicians nationally, and thereby achieved consensus regarding the identi-

fication and description of eleven core competencies in Hospice Palliative Care. These competencies are relevant for

social workers at different experience levels across care settings. They can be used to inform social work practice, as

well as professional development and educational curricula in this area.

Keywords

social work competencies, social work practice, palliative care, end-of-life care, Delphi technique

Introduction

Social workers play an important role in the delivery of
Hospice Palliative Care (HPC). In time, most social
work practitioners will encounter adults, children, and
families who are facing progressive life limiting illness,
dying, death, or bereavement. Such social work inter-
actions occur not only in health care settings, but in all
locations where social workers practice. These include
hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, adult daycare, and
senior centers as well as non-health-care sites such as
child and family services agencies, income assistance
programs, schools, courts, and employee assistance
services.

1

The profession of social work brings a unique per-
spective to end-of-life care that reflects and supports the
holistic philosophy of HPC. It draws on an ecological

approach to problem-solving that considers the multi-
dimensional impact of individual, family, and socio-
cultural influences in our daily experiences.

2
This

approach fits well with the focus of palliative care,
which aims to alleviate suffering and improve the qual-
ity of living and dying by addressing physical, psycho-
logical, social, spiritual, and practical concerns.

3
Both

palliative care and social work reflect philosophies of
caring that consider individuals in the full context of
their lives.

4–7

As such, HPC is most effectively delivered by an
interprofessional team with relevant expertise in each
discipline.

8
For social workers, the focus of practice

within this collaborative approach is centered primarily
on psychosocial needs at end of life and during bereave-
ment.

9,10
They bring to the team an expertise regarding

Corresponding author:

Harvey Bosma, School of Social Work, University of British Columbia, 2080 West Mall, Vancouver, BC, Canada V6T 1Z3. Email: bosmah@shaw.ca

health and social systems, individual and family
dynamics, cultural diversity, grief and loss, communi-
cation, advocacy, ethics, and interdisciplinary prac-
tice.

1,8,11–13
As Brandsen

11
points out, ‘social workers

are integral participants in developing and delivering
end-of-life care, and have been for quite some time’
(p. 58).

Despite the prominent and long-standing position of
social work in HPC, the role and functions of social
workers have not been clearly defined. In
Brandsen’s

11
literature review of the social work profes-

sion’s involvement in end-of-life care, she found that
empirical documentation of social workers’ roles and
responsibilities was weak. This gap was also identified
in pediatric palliative and end-of-life care.

14
The lack of

a clearly defined identity has contributed to other pro-
fessionals’ confusion about what social workers actu-
ally do in HPC, and, consequently, other professions
often have inadequate knowledge about the complexity
and value of social work practice in this area.

5,10,15
The

resulting ambiguity has contributed to boundary and
role issues between social workers and other health care
professionals, particularly nurses and physicians.

12,16

Furthermore, without a clearly articulated role, social
workers have questioned their adequacy and compe-
tence to provide professional care to individuals and
families during the dying process and after death.

15

Therefore, it is crucial for the social work profession
to coherently identify and outline its roles and compe-
tencies so that social work practice can be advanced in
HPC, and adequate education and training be devel-
oped and offered to current practitioners and new stu-
dents. Recently, efforts have been made to address this
gap. For example, in the United States, an outcome of a
social work leadership summit on end-of-life and pal-
liative care was a description of competencies for social
work practice in HPC, which became the source for
national standards for social work practice in palliative
and end-of-life care in America.

1,17,18
Jones

14
also pro-

duced a report of best social work practices for care of
children and their families at end of life based on a
survey of over 100 pediatric oncology social workers.

Until now, similar endeavors have not occurred in
Canada, although the Canadian Senate Committee for
Palliative and End of Life Care has underlined the
importance of national standards and competency in
end-of-life care, and the need for specific training for
all professions to achieve these.

19,20
The call to develop

evidence-based norms and standards of professional
practices in HPC was strongly reiterated by the
Quality End-of-Life Care Coalition

21
in light of the

prediction that the number of deaths in Canada is
expected to increase 33% by the year 2020. In response
to this call, a national task group of social work practi-
tioners and educators came together to identify

competencies that are essential to social work practice
in HPC (Appendix 1). The group members recognized
that a clear description of basic practice competencies
was imperative to the development of professional
practice standards and social work education in this
area. This need was further underlined by the fact
that other disciplines involved in HPC had already
established descriptions of professional competen-
cies.

22,23
Therefore, the task group successfully applied

for funding through Health Canada to accomplish this
project.

Methods

The task group adopted a Delphi technique to identify
and describe the competencies required for social work
practice in HPC. The Delphi technique is a structured
method that has been broadly used in the health
sciences.

24
Its aim is to synthesize a diverse range of

expert opinions about a particular topic, until a con-
sensus is achieved. The Delphi technique is an iterative
process that typically comprises two to three rounds of
anonymous questionnaires. Information is collected
from a panel of experts (people who are able to offer
credible opinions) during each round. Responses are
then analyzed and refined into a new questionnaire
for the subsequent round with the same panel.

25

Panel sizes usually range from 15 to 35 members with
the expectation that 35–75% invitees will actually
participate.

26

Originally a postal method, the Delphi technique has
been adapted to electronic mail. Consequently, experts
from a large geographical area can easily participate.
Another advantage of this technique is that it provides
an opportunity for participants to confidentially pre-
sent and respond to ideas without reacting to the
group dynamics that sometimes impede face-to-face
interactions. Moreover, it allows time for reflective con-
sideration of the questions at hand.

There are differing forms of the Delphi technique
and few researchers use a uniform method.

27,28
The

task group developed a modified Delphi process to
meet the goals of this project. Instead of starting the
first round of the process with a set of open-ended
questions, the task group identified and described a
number of competencies (Table 1) themselves, which
they then presented to a panel of national experts for
feedback. Because the Delphi technique can generate
large volumes of data, the presentation of pre-existing
information based on previous literature reviews or
focus group data is an efficient way of using a technique
that can be very time consuming otherwise.

28–30

The template for the competencies was modeled on
the Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association’s

31

Norms of Practice and a related conceptual framework

80 Palliative Medicine 24(1)

regarding levels of competency developed by the
Victoria Hospice.

31
The initial description of the com-

petencies was based on a combination of the knowledge
and skills of the task group members and a review of
publications and websites of various HPC and oncol-
ogy organizations in Canada and the United States
regarding current practice standards.

33–38

The task group members worked in pairs to develop
a description of each competency. When a version of a
competency was completed, it was circulated to two
other members for further review and input. The result-
ing framework of each competency provided specific
details that included an overall description of the core
competency, and the required attitudes and values,
knowledge, and skills most pertinent to it.

The task group then identified and invited social
work practitioners and educators across the country
to review these competencies through two rounds of
questionnaires. The goal was to establish consensus
regarding the relevance and description of each compe-
tency, and to identify any other core competencies that
should be added and developed. In the initial stage of
recruitment for the panel, the task group sent out a
general call to the British Columbia and the Canadian
Social Work/Counseling HPC Interest Groups for par-
ticipants for this project. They also identified a number
of social workers and counselors currently working in
the area of HPC. Two research assistants (RAs: HB
and MJ) sent each social worker a letter of invitation,
which was followed by a phone call as needed to deter-
mine whether or not the individual was able to partici-
pate. Completion of the initial request served as consent
for Phase One and also for agreement to participate in
the second round of the Delphi process.

Several of these respondents also suggested other
individuals for the panel, who were then contacted as
well. The use of both purposive and snowball sampling
techniques ensured a panel with diverse experience and
expertise in social work practice in the context of HPC.
A deliberate effort was made to include participants
from different practice settings and all regions of
Canada. Thus, participants on this panel worked in a
variety of locations such as hospitals, hospices, long-
term care facilities, cancer care centers, community
agencies, and universities in British Columbia,

Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Newfoundland, Nova
Scotia, and the Yukon.

Data collection was done by email. This approach
had both positive and negative aspects. Certainly, the
electronic transmission of information and question-
naires facilitated efficient communication with panel
members during each round of the study. However,
difficulties occurred during the first round when the
questionnaire was transferred into an Adobe format.
Specifically, some participants did not have the com-
puter software to enter responses directly into the docu-
ment, and they were only able to access the document
as a ‘read-only’ version. This required the participant to
print out and manually complete the document, and
then fax or mail the completed questionnaire to the
research office. To address this problem, the Adobe
format was discontinued in Round Two and the ques-
tionnaire was reformatted as a Word document, per-
mitting easy data entry and electronic transmission.

The task group employed several strategies of data
generation consistent with the consensus building pro-
cess of the Delphi methodology. Task group members
identified and developed the first version of the 11 core
competencies. This was followed by a peer review pro-
cess whereby all competencies were reviewed by two
other members. The RAs read all the final comments
and incorporated the edits for each competency for this
initial process and the subsequent panel rounds; they
consulted with two members of the task group (SC and
WW) as needed. The RAs, who were doctoral students
and research trainees with two CIHR New Emerging
Teams (NETs): Transitions in Pediatric and End of Life
Care and Palliative Care in a Cross-Cultural Context,
also had relevant clinical social work experience in
HPC. The study extended over a period of 10 months
and involved two phases of data collection and
analyses.

Results

Round One

A response rate of 66% (20/30) was achieved in the first
round of this research study. One emailed questionnaire
was not received and was designated as missing data.
In Round One, 16 participants (80%) agreed that all 11
competencies listed are essential to social work practice
in HPC. Two of the competencies were listed as non-
essential by three participants: one participant identi-
fied community capacity building as non-essential, and
two participants identified education and research as
non-essential.

Six additional competencies were suggested as essen-
tial to social work practice in HPC. Cultural compe-
tency was suggested twice as essential and the

Table 1. Task group competencies

Advocacy Assessment

Care delivery Care planning

Community capacity building Decision making

Evaluation Education and research

Information sharing Interdisciplinary team

Self-reflective practice

H Bosma et al. 81

following five new competencies were suggested once:
(1) competency in understanding the multidimensional
nature of health and wellness; (2) competency in under-
standing the social determinants of health; (3) adaptabil-
ity to work environment; (4) spirituality of self, team, and
others; (5) counseling and treatment planning (Table 2).

Round Two

All responses were carefully reviewed by the RAs and
compiled into a new questionnaire and emailed to the
20 respondents of Round One. The Round Two ques-
tionnaire included a list of the original competencies as
well as all of the changes suggested in Round One
regarding their descriptions. All changes were high-
lighted in red within the body of the 11 competencies.
The list of additional competencies that were suggested
by some panelists for further development was also
included.

The participants were asked to complete three tasks
for Round Two: (1) to state whether they agreed with
the suggested changes to the competencies; (2) to indi-
cate how essential each competency was to social work
practice in HPC; (3) to indicate whether the six new
competencies should be developed further. Panelists
indicated their responses by clicking on an appropriate
answer from a drop down menu as described below.
They also had opportunities to enter additional
remarks in comment boxes along the way.

Nineteen responses (95%) were received via email
and fax. In the final analysis of the data, the total
number of respondents fluctuates for several competen-
cies as a result of missing data. Inclusion of missing
data as part of the total sample translates statistically
to assuming that the response was ‘no.’ After careful
consideration by the task group as a whole, it was
determined that the management of missing data
according to the purpose of consensus building
deemed it appropriate to have a fluctuating sample.
Table 3 displays the consensus levels for the description
of each aspect of each competency.

In the Round Two analysis, the RAs incorporated
content changes to the competencies when the majority

of participants agreed with the proposed recommenda-
tions. For some competencies, a minority of partici-
pants suggested changes. The RAs incorporated these
suggestions when such changes did not alter the overall
meaning of a particular point, and, from their perspec-
tive, helped to clarify the point. For example, under
the interdisciplinary care competency, the RAs agreed
with the suggestion to remove the qualifier ‘good’ from
‘good psychosocial care’ as it was deemed that in
the context of core competencies, ‘good’ care is implicit
to ‘psychosocial care.’ The reviewers did not incorpo-
rate minority suggestions that significantly altered
the meaning of a point. To include such changes
would warrant a third round to provide an opportunity
to all participants to respond to the recommended
change.

In addition to reviewing the suggested changes,
participants were asked to rate how essential each com-
petency was according to a six-point Likert scale:
absolutely essential, very essential, essential, somewhat
essential, not essential, and unsure (Table 4).

Participants were also asked whether the new com-
petencies that had been suggested in Round One should
be developed further as stand-alone competencies.
Participants were asked to consider whether or not
each competency should be added, whether it was
already included in an existing competency, or whether
they were unsure about the suggested competency
(Table 5).

Discussion

The Delphi method has facilitated an effective process
to establish consensus among social work clinicians and
academics across Canada regarding core competencies

Table 2. Suggested competencies for future development

Cultural competency
a

Adapting to work environment
b

Supporting spiritual needs

of self, team and others
b

Counselling and treatment

planning
b

Understanding social

determinants of health
b

Understanding multi-dimensional

aspects of health and wellness
b

a
Suggested twice.

b
Suggested once.

Table 3. Achieved consensus for descriptions of competency

domains

Competency

Attitudes/

values Knowledge Skills

Advocacy 83% 83% 78%

Assessment 82% 72% 72%

Care delivery 100% 83% 94%

Care planning 82% 83% 94%

Community capacity building 94% 94% 94%

Evaluation 100% 94% 82%

Decision making 93% 94% 94%

Education 82% 100% 69%

Research 94% 94% 75%

Information sharing 77% 100% 88%

Interdisciplinary team 100% 100% 88%

Self-reflective practice 88% 100% 88%

82 Palliative Medicine 24(1)

for social work practice in HPC. Round One results
demonstrate strong agreement among the participants
regarding 11 specific competencies as essential to social
work practice in end of life care. Round Two results
reflect the consensus established among the panel of
experts regarding the descriptions of each competency.
Furthermore, several additional competencies have
been identified in this process and suggested as also
essential to social work practice in HPC. As expected,
differences among panel member perspectives also
emerged during this process, which are also valuable
data. The following discussion addresses additional
information received that is relevant for further
consideration.

Specificity of theories

In the first round, specific theories were identified as
required knowledge for several of the competencies.
For example, for the competencies of advocacy, care
delivery and interdisciplinary team, theories pertaining
to communication and mediation, evaluation, systems,
and group work were specifically included, although
this level of detail does not occur in all possible
instances. This prompted a discussion within the

comment section whereby participants questioned the
need to specify theories. Questions were raised about
why knowledge of specific theories is deemed a core
skill in some areas but not others. The task group
reviewed these comments and determined that the pur-
pose of developing core competencies was not to out-
line a specific set of theories. However, the inclusion of
some theories pertinent to particular competencies was
deemed necessary by the panel and consensus was
established. Therefore, mindful of the fact that the
competencies do not include an exhaustive list of the-
ories, it was determined that keeping the theories as
part of the competencies may be helpful in informing
practice and future curriculum.

Language

Several participants voiced concern regarding use of the
word ‘power.’ However, in adhering to the principles of
the Delphi process, we did not remove the word, as the
majority of participants did not comment on it, or seek
removal of it, during the Round Two data collection.
We underline this point because the reaction to the use
of this word seemed quite strong, and failure to men-
tion the specific comments surrounding this term and

Table 4. Scale rating results of 11 competencies

Competency

Absolutely

essential

Very

essential Essential

Somewhat

essential

Not

essential Unsure

Advocacy 50% 31% 13% 6%

Assessment 69% 6% 25%

Care delivery 56% 19% 19% 6%

Care planning 62% 19% 19%

Community capacity building 13% 37% 31% 6% 13%

Confirmation 50% 6% 44%

Decision making 50% 25% 25%

Education and research
a

13% 33% 40% 7% 7%

Information sharing 56% 25% 19%

Interdisciplinary team 62% 19% 19%

Self-reflective practice 62% 13% 25%

a
One person rated ‘education’ (essential) and ‘research’ (not essential) separately.

Table 5. Response rating of adding suggested competencies

Competency Add Do not add Already included Unsure

Cultural competency 50% 6% 38% 6%

Multi-dimensional nature of health/wellness 19% 13% 62% 6%

Social determinants of health 31% 6% 44% 19%

Adaptability to work environment 6% 31% 44% 19%

Spirituality of self, team, and others 6% 13% 75% 6%

Counseling and treatment planning 6% 6% 75% 13%

H Bosma et al. 83

merely dismissing this concern would not be appropri-
ate. Upon closer review, the main concern appears to
be related to the actual use of the word within a specific
context. For example, a participant questioned whether
‘power differentials’ fits with the competency care plan-
ning. Furthermore, a request was made to remove the
word ‘power’ from a bullet referencing ‘spirituality’ as
the participant deemed it inappropriate to link these
two terms together. Due to the reaction to this specific
word, the task group discussed the inclusion or removal
of the word and decided to leave the word as part of the
document.

In addition, the majority of respondents preferred
use of the term ‘evaluation’ rather than ‘confirmation’
as the name for that competency. Those participants
who advocated the ongoing use of the word ‘confirma-
tion’ explained that this was the term used by the
Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association in its
description of norms of practice. To maintain the integ-
rity of the consensus building process, the competency
was changed from ‘confirmation’ to ‘evaluation.’

Core skills and level of education

The education and research competency generated the
greatest amount of discussion and debate, which
accounts for a lower level of consensus regarding the
‘skills’ domain of this competency (education 69%;
research 75%). Specifically, respondents voiced concern
that identification of research as a core competency
would limit the scope of HPC practice to Masters pre-
pared social workers. Similarly, inclusion of supervi-
sion as a core skill within this competency was viewed
in the same way. This raises a larger question regarding
differences between Bachelor and Masters prepared
practitioners, and how those differences are apparent
along a continuum of knowledge and skills.

These responses also represent the various percep-
tions among social workers regarding the appropriate
scope of practice for each of these levels of education.
They reflect a long-standing discussion in the profes-
sion regarding generalist versus specialist training for
social workers in health care settings.

39
Many generalist

social work skills regarding counseling, family systems,
community resources, and psychosocial assessments
are relevant to working with patients and families
with terminal illness.

12
However, practitioners and

educators have underlined the benefit of a combined
generalist and specialist training for social workers
who work primarily with dying individuals and
families.

18,39

From the outset, the task group recognized that
social work core competencies in HPC may not have
direct application across all settings and for all practi-
tioners. This perspective reflects the reality of different

resource levels that exist across care sites and geo-
graphic locations in Canada. Therefore, the task
group emphasized that the final competencies should
not be presented for use as an inflexible or uniform
template of knowledge, values, and skills for all social
workers who provide HPC. Rather the competencies
are meant to be used as a recommended framework
outlining desired social work practice components
in end-of-life care. This echoes the Quality End-
of-Life Care Coalition’s (2005) recommendation
that best practices be flexible enough to respond to
different service programs and settings, but substan-
tial enough to provide clear guidelines for appropriate
care.

Additional competencies

As indicated above, six additional competencies were
identified as important to social work practice in HPC.
Although the majority of panel members indicated that
several of these competencies, such as the multidimen-
sional nature of health and wellness, spirituality of self,
team, and others, and counseling and treatment planning
were already included in the original 11 competencies, a
significant number of respondents (50%) recommended
that cultural competence should be developed as a
stand-alone competency.

Implications

In the end, this information will be helpful to social
workers to articulate their role and activities to other
professionals, and serve as a basis to develop and eval-
uate outcomes of social work practice in HPC.
Furthermore, the competencies can be used to inform
social work professional development and educational
curricula in this area. As Lawson

9
emphasizes, we must

develop and demonstrate our knowledge and skills so
that we can contribute effectively ‘to the shared respon-
sibility of excellence in palliative and end-of-life care’
(p. 17).

The building of consensus around these competen-
cies has resulted in a comprehensive, descriptive docu-
ment outlining 11 core competencies for social work
practice in HPC.

40
These competencies can be used to

facilitate the development of consistent practice goals
and guidelines for social workers entering the field as
well as those currently practicing in it. They are rele-
vant across a range of practice locations and popula-
tions. Furthermore, social workers can draw on these
competencies to clearly articulate their role and activ-
ities within interprofessional care teams, and to evalu-
ate their contributions.

An important next step is to incorporate these com-
petencies into social work education curricula at both

84 Palliative Medicine 24(1)

the undergraduate and graduate levels. Social workers
report that they are inadequately prepared to work with
dying and grieving clients.

14,15,18,39,41
This assessment is

reiterated by social work educators, who share the per-
spective that students receive little course content on
care of the dying and bereaved.

15
Insufficient educa-

tional preparation has been identified as a barrier to
effective and ethical practice in end-of-life care.

11

These competencies can be used to build relevant
curricula for Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) and
Master of Social Work (MSW) courses as well as
professional development and training programs.
The incorporation of this knowledge into discipline cur-
ricula is

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