Social workers have made a significant contribution to the development and delivery of palliative care. Both palliative care and social work are rapidly evolving but, given their changing contexts and increasing workloads, can they sustain compatibility? Advances in treatment of life-threatening illness mean that people live longer in a period of palliative care. Social work has undergone radical change in the wake of the 1990 NHS and Community Care Act and subsequent local-authority modernizations, with social workers now given the role of care managers, rather than the more traditional ‘casework’ or therapeutic role. This paper aims to explore the current and potential role of the social worker in palliative care for people with cancer and other prolonged life-threatening illness. It draws upon evidence from a prospective qualitative, patient-centred research study, which detailed the experiences of forty people with lung cancer and advanced cardiac failure, and their personal and professional carers (Murray et al., 2002). A total of two hundred and nineteen qualitative interviews were carried out.
We found that social workers were conspicuous by their absence from the lives of these forty vulnerable adults, who were living and dying in the community with many unmet needs which, potentially, could be met by social-work input. The study highlights six areas of concern in which social-work assessment and intervention could have impacted on dying patients’ quality of life and that of their carers: loss and dependency, family-centred issues, carers’ needs, practical tasks, emotional and spiritual struggles, and finally, support needs of staff. These areas are outlined to explore the territory which a social worker might inhabit if resources and policies permitted.