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Brief Report
June 2018

Social Worker–Aided Palliative Care Intervention in High-risk Patients With Heart Failure (SWAP-HF)A Pilot Randomized Clinical Trial

Author Affiliations
  • 1Boston University School of Social Work, Boston, Massachusetts
  • 2Palliative Medicine Division, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts
  • 3Division of Cardiovascular Medicine, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, Tennessee
  • 4Department of Social Work, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts
  • 5Cardiovascular Division, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts
JAMA Cardiol. 2018;3(6):516-519. doi:10.1001/jamacardio.2018.0589
Key Points

Question  Can routine initiation of goals of care discussions by a palliative care social worker bridging inpatient to outpatient care facilitate greater patient-physician engagement around palliative care considerations in high-risk patients hospitalized with decompensated heart failure?

Findings  In this randomized clinical trial, compared with usual care, patients allocated to the social worker–led intervention were more likely to have physician-level documentation of care preferences in the electronic health record and to have prognostic expectations aligned with their physicians without worsening of depression, anxiety, or quality-of-life scores.

Meaning  Training and empowering social workers to initiate goals of care conversations for individuals in inpatient care transitioning to outpatient care may improve the overall quality of care for patients with advanced heart failure.


Importance  Palliative care considerations are typically introduced late in the disease trajectory of patients with advanced heart failure (HF), and access to specialty-level palliative care may be limited.

Objective  To determine if early initiation of goals of care conversations by a palliative care–trained social worker would improve prognostic understanding, elicit advanced care preferences, and influence care plans for high-risk patients discharged after HF hospitalization.

Design, Setting, and Participants  This prospective, randomized clinical trial of a social worker–led palliative care intervention vs usual care analyzed patients recently hospitalized for management of acute HF who had risk factors for poor prognosis. Analyses were conducted by intention to treat.

Interventions  Key components of the social worker–led intervention included a structured evaluation of prognostic understanding, end-of-life preferences, symptom burden, and quality of life with routine review by a palliative care physician; communication of this information to treating clinicians; and longitudinal follow-up in the ambulatory setting.

Main Outcomes and Measures  Percentage of patients with physician-level documentation of advanced care preferences and the degree of alignment between patient and cardiologist expectations of prognosis at 6 months.

Results  The study population (N = 50) had a mean (SD) age of 72 (11) years and had a mean (SD) left ventricular ejection fraction of 0.33 (13). Of 50 patients, 41 (82%) had been hospitalized more than once for HF management within 12 months of enrollment. At enrollment, treating physicians anticipated death within a year for 32 patients (64%), but 42 patients (84%) predicted their life expectancy to be longer than 5 years. At 6 months, more patients in the intervention group than in the control group had physician-level documentation of advanced care preferences in the electronic health record (17 [65%] vs 8 [33%]; χ2 = 5.1; P = .02). Surviving patients allocated to intervention were also more likely to revise their baseline prognostic assessment in a direction consistent with the physician’s assessment (15 [94%] vs 4 [26%]; χ2 = 14.7; P < .001). Among the 31 survivors at 6 months, there was no measured difference between groups in depression, anxiety, or quality-of-life scores.

Conclusions and Relevance  Patients at high risk for mortality from HF frequently overestimate their life expectancy. Without an adverse impact on quality of life, prognostic understanding and patient-physician communication regarding goals of care may be enhanced by a focused, social worker–led palliative care intervention that begins in the hospital and continues in the outpatient setting.

Trial Registration  clinicaltrials.gov Identifier: NCT02805712.