According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), palliative care is medical care necessary to support patients suffering from chronic illnesses such as cancer, HIV, rare genetic diseases, and other disorders in order to help provide the best quality of life. In order for palliative care to work properly, it requires a team of doctors, nurses, and social workers to develop a plan of care to assist the patient and their families. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Helen McNeal who is the Executive Director of the California University Institute of Palliative Care at Cal State San Marcos. Here is our discussion:
SWH: Could you tell us about your background and position with California State University?
HM: My role is guide the Institute team in accomplishing its mission of educating current and future health care professionals about palliative care, and educating the public about palliative care, its importance, how to access it and advocate for it in the community. We are also charged to do and create a model for professional and community education that can be replicated at California State University campuses and others across the state and around the country.
I have been involved in hospice and palliative care for more than 25 years, beginning with helping to found a hospice in Ontario Canada and from that point forward consulting on palliative care with the provincial and federal governments in Canada, with the Department of Health and Human Services and the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization here in the U.S. Prior to becoming involved with launching and establishing the CSU Institute for Palliative Care in July of 2012, I was the Vice President and Executive Director for the Institute for Palliative Medicine at San Diego Hospice. As you can tell, palliative care is my passion!
SWH: What is Palliative Care, and what prompted California State University to create the first certificate program of its kind?
HM: Palliative care is specialized care that focuses on improving quality of life for people with serious or chronic illness and their families. It prevents and relieves suffering by addressing pain as well as the physical, emotional, psycho-social and spiritual problems associated with serious and chronic conditions. The goal is to improve quality of life for both the patient and the family. Palliative care is provided by a team of doctors, nurses, social workers, chaplains and other specialists who work together with a patient’s other doctors to provide an extra layer of support. It is appropriate at any age and at any stage in a serious illness and can be provided along with curative treatment.
The CSU is the largest workforce development “engine” in the country, graduating 80% of all health care professionals in California. With 1 in 8 Americans currently over the age of 65 and that number growing to 1 in 5 by 2030, the CSU recognized the importance of palliative care to current and future health professionals and, with the leadership of one of our trustees and President Karen Haynes of Cal State San Marcos, created the Institute.
Social workers are a vital part of the palliative care team. There are not a lot of educational options for social workers interested in improving their palliative care skills and the need for palliative care trained social workers is great. Creating the first online palliative care certificate program just made sense. President Haynes is a PhD Social Worker and former Dean of a School of Social Work, so she supported our making this program a priority. Initially, we had thought to make the program a hybrid, with the first of the three levels of the program done in person, but social workers told us to put it all online … and we have.
SWH: How can this certificate benefit social work practitioners and assist them in their career goals?
HM: Social workers are vital to the success of palliative care if we are to address the psycho-social needs of patients and families. In addition, social workers can play a vital role in advance-care planning and in addressing the practical issues that cause pain and suffering for those with chronic and serious illness and their families.
There is a true story that I often share about the impact of social workers in palliative care. A young immigrant mother with advanced breast cancer was suffering intractable pain and nothing seemed to help. A social worker was brought in to speak with her in her native language and learned that she was concerned for the well-being of her two children. She wanted, after her death, for them to be raised in Mexico by her mother instead of in the U.S. with her husband. The social worker was able to work this out with the husband and mother, and from that point forward, only minimal pain medication was required to keep her comfortable. Research has shown that patients who have the opportunity to work with a palliative care social worker have a more positive care experience as this story illustrates.
With 90% of those over 65 having at least one serious or chronic illness, the demand for palliative care trained social workers is going to continue growing. It offers a rewarding career path for both current and new social workers but it requires specialized skills, and that is what our program offers. In addition, with the emphasis on interdisciplinary practice, there are opportunities for social workers to take on more of a leadership role in delivering palliative care than ever before.
For social workers looking for a rewarding career and opportunities for leadership in today’s changing healthcare environment, our program provides the education that can help them achieve their goals. Our program consists of three levels. Level 1 provides participants with a firm grounding in the principles and role of the palliative care social worker. Level 2 enhances their skills in key areas including motivational interviewing, grief and loss, dealing with difficult cases and special populations. Level 3 prepares them for leadership and program building, while also facilitating their completing a project in the form of original research, developing a program or getting an article published. In short, it provides a strong foundation for career success in every dimension.
SWH: Some Social Work practitioners may be skeptical about online education, what can you tell us about the program at CSU that will help alleviate any concerns?
HM: What we hear from social workers is that they don’t have time to take off from work to do an advanced program and that while they want to learn more about palliative care, they need a program that they can do where they are, when they have time … and that is cost-effective. The Institute’s Post-MSW Palliative Care Certificate meets these requirements.
Social workers doing our program will do one module each month, doing one segment each week for three weeks and then have a one-week break. While the work for the week needs to be done that week, it can be done whenever the social worker has time … at lunch, in the evening, on Saturday morning. What could be easier and more convenient? With a maximum of 15 participants in the course, there will be lots of interaction with colleagues as well as with our outstanding faculty.
I understand that those who have not done online learning might be skeptical but as we hear from those who do our other online programs, doing an asynchronous learning program means that you can really bring real world challenges into the classroom, discuss them with colleagues and get rapid responses from your faculty. What participants are telling us is that online education brings learning closer to their daily clinical experience.
SWH: Are there plans to create other types of certifications to support post MSW learning, and are there any key points that you would like to personally relay to potential students interested in this program?
HM: Our focus is on educating professionals in palliative care. We are assessing the need for a post-BSW certificate in palliative care as so many BSW social workers work in hospice and long-term care settings. In addition, because we have certificate programs for all the individual members of the palliative care team, we are looking at doing an interdisciplinary program that would be undertaken by palliative care teams to enhance their skills at working as a team.
In the meantime, we would love to hear from social workers what they would like us to provide in palliative care training. After all, we know that social workers are committed to providing exceptional care to patients and families, and we are here to help them achieve that goal!
For more information on the Palliative Care Certificate Program, please visit using this link.