Meet your treatment team: Dialysis social worker

social worker with elderly couple

Finding out you have kidney failure and need dialysis often comes as a life-changing shock. One member of your treatment team is trained to help you through this transition and beyond: your dialysis social worker.

Dialysis centers are required by the federal government to have a social worker with a master's degree on staff and that person may also need a social work license, depending on which state you live in. If you are doing in-center dialysis, you will see your social worker regularly at your appointments and may develop a close relationship with them.

Your social worker cares for you in three key ways: providing emotional support, advocating for you to other members of your dialysis care team and managing administrative tasks.

Emotional support

Your social worker will be a general resource for you and your family as you are learning to live with kidney failure and understand your rights as a patient. They will help you adjust to the emotional toll of having kidney failure, including anxiety, depression, sadness and fear. Social workers help children and parents of children with kidney disease navigate the illness, and help the child continue to live out their childhood. A social worker may also help explain your illness and treatment in terms you understand.

Patient-team advocate

Your social worker is a member of your dialysis care team, so they work with your other medical professionals to get you the care you need. This means acting as an advocate on your behalf to other members of the team. Your social worker will conduct at least one Kidney Disease Quality of Life (KDQOL) assessment for you each year, and the results are shared with the rest of your care team. The KDQOL measures how well you are coping with kidney failure, both mentally and physically, and is used by the team to make sure they are treating you appropriately.

Your social worker will have access to information about your treatment, medicines and dietary requirements, so they can help you follow the recommendations along the way. They usually are the ones in the clinic who help patients find financial assistance, including grants from AKF to pay for health insurance or other costs for treating kidney failure that are not covered by insurance.

Social workers often have a heavy patient load, and some even travel between two or more centers to meet with patients. Keep this in mind when meeting with your social worker and try to think about what you would like to discuss with them before your dialysis appointment, so you can get the most out of your time with them.

Administrative assistance

Because dialysis patients spend a lot of time in appointments and managing their health, social workers step in to help with some of the administrative tasks on behalf of patients. Your social worker will help you deal with your insurance company and some of the financial burden of having kidney failure. They will explain your rights as an employee if you need to go on medical leave or disability, as well as help you secure employment if you are physically able to work but are currently unemployed.

Social workers can help you find affordable housing or get food assistance if you cannot work. They can also let you know about community resources available to you, such as arranging transportation to and from your dialysis appointments and finding a support group you may wish to join.


Elissa Blattman

Elissa Blattman is the associate director of communications at the American Kidney Fund.