For over 100 years, there has been an unsung hero in the medical field: the healthcare social worker. In her 1930 address, Ida Cannon, a pioneer of the practice, stated, “The medical social movement service recognizes that there should be within the hospital… someone definitely assigned to represent the patient’s point of view… and to work out with the physician, an adaptation of the medical treatment in the light of the patient’s social condition.”
While doctors, nurses, specialists and more are all crucial to supporting the physical needs of a patient, the medical social worker assists behind the scenes with patients and families to ensure they have the resources they need to heal, as well as addressing their emotional and psychosocial needs. Medical social workers’ duties can be very different, depending on the unique needs of their clients, but they may be involved in meal planning, grief counseling, providing referrals for support groups and a variety of other services that support patients throughout their recovery.
Today, healthcare and medical social workers benefit from a positive career outlook. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 17% growth in health care social workers by 2028.
What Do Social Workers in Healthcare Do?
The duties and responsibilities of a healthcare social worker change from patient to patient. Because every case is unique, social workers in healthcare must be able to adjust to a variety of needs. While it’s impossible to encapsulate every duty of a medical social worker, this article will explore some of the core responsibilities.
Assessing the Patient’s Physical and Psychological Needs
Assessing the patient’s needs is usually the first duty of a medical social worker. This involves discussions with the patient, doctors, nurses and family members to get a thorough history of the case. Healthcare social workers discuss physical and mental ailments, and gain an understanding of their clients’ social, emotional and financial needs.
Once they’ve done their initial assessment, a social worker can develop a personalized plan. This may involve helping to coordinate and communicate among the client’s family and other health professionals as well as helping them find long-term support services, such as counseling or physical therapy.
Answering Questions from the Patient or Their Family
When a loved one is in the hospital or recovering from an injury, the types of questions family members and patients ask can range from “When can we go home?” to “Why did the treatment plan change?”
Social workers meet patients at their most vulnerable and being able to find answers and quell fears is a must for all social workers in healthcare settings. Not only does patient education help keep minds at ease, but studies have shown that educated patients have better outcomes — for example, research has found that cancer patients are better able to manage their pain and have higher self esteem when they are well informed about their condition and treatments. Healthcare social workers help to ensure that their clients understand both their treatment plans and any alternatives that may be available.
Providing Financial Planning and Assistance
Medical procedures and treatments can put a huge weight on families. While doctors and nurses are doing what they can to make sure the patient recovers properly, there is additional financial stress that comes with treating disease.
Social workers in healthcare help to address this by referring patients to community resources, financial assistance plans and legal aid as needed. After treatment, many social workers also help patients with job or education placement.
Developing Discharge Plans
Medical social workers also assist patients and families in finding the resources they need after leaving the hospital.
Part of this planning may include arranging in-home care options, coordinating rehabilitation services or reworking the recovery strategy after patient follow-ups. A main focus of social workers in healthcare is preparation for life after treatment, and discharge planning an essential part of the work they do.
Individual and Group Counseling
Patients and families often have issues coping with the treatments they must undergo. Because of this, medical social workers talk with patients individually to help them manage pain or other negative side effects. They may also organize and lead peer support groups to facilitate recovery.
For example, there are many peer groups for cancer patients going through chemotherapy, and these groups provide a way for them to share their experiences and get the emotional support they need.
Case Management Paperwork
Medical social workers also deal with the paperwork that comes with each of their clients. They have to monitor, evaluate and record patient progress throughout treatment, which helps to ensure recovery is going as expected. Social workers in healthcare may handle a number of different types of documents, including insurance, treatment and discharge paperwork.
Advocating for Patient’s Rights
Most of all, social workers in healthcare serve as advocates for their clients’ rights. They work with doctors and nurses to make sure that patients are treated with respect and receive the appropriate care at every stage of the recovery process. This may include keeping doctors and nurses apprised of any obstacles a patient may have in following medical recommendations. For children, this may also include investigating child abuse or neglect and taking authorized action when necessary.
According to the American Medical Association, patient rights include:
- The right to courtesy, respect, dignity and attention to their needs.
- The right to information about the benefits, risks and costs of treatment and alternatives.
- The right to ask questions about their status and treatment plan.
- The right to make decisions regarding their care.
- The right to confidentiality.
- The right to obtain copies of their medical records.
- The right to a second opinion.
- The right to be advised of any conflicts of interest their physician may have regarding their care.
- The right to continuity of care and sufficient notice and assistance when alternative care arrangements are needed.
Requirements for Social Workers in Healthcare
Over a third of all medical social workers have earned a Master of Social Work, and there are few positions in the healthcare industry without some sort of social worker education requirements. While a baccalaureate degree may meet minimum qualifications to enter the field, the vital knowledge and monetary benefits of an MSW show why so many are continuing on to graduate education. According to a study by the George Washington University, social workers with an MSW have a median income that is $11,000 higher than BSW holders.
Many of the job titles in social work are protected, meaning they require licensure to obtain. Licensing requirements can vary by state, and these qualifications can also determine the scope of work social work professionals are able to perform. For example, Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) graduates working in New York are typically only eligible for entry-level roles; they may also be able to perform some tasks under supervision. However, New York requires a master’s degree to become either a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) or Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW).
To gain a license, social workers must take licensing exams through the Association of Social Work Boards and spend a period of time, often two to three years, working under supervision.
Healthcare Social Work Skills
In order to be a successful healthcare social worker, there are certain skills that should be developed through education and experience.
- Active Listening
- Case Management
- Discharge Planning
- Interpersonal Intelligence
- Problem Solving
- Treatment Planning
The Growing Need for Healthcare Social Workers
Ida Cannon may have been the first to dedicate her life to medical social work, but she was most definitely not the last. Over the last century, thousands have devoted their careers to helping patients and families in need. Medical social work is a continually growing field —and one that is likely to expand as we develop a better understanding of the intersection of mental, physical, emotional and social health — that provides a life-changing necessity for patients and gives many social workers a purpose.
About Adelphi’s Online MSW
The highly respected School of Social Work at Adelphi has a long history of producing leaders in social work and helping to shape social policies. Since 1951, we have continually been accredited by the Council on Social Work Education, and Adelphi’s Social Work graduate program is now ranked in the top 5% of the country, according to US News & World Report. Additionally, our faculty are expert practitioners and researchers, having published across the full range of topics within the field—including disparities in healthcare, child advocacy, the role of social workers in shaping policies and more.
Our Online Master of Social Work program brings the combined decades of expertise and legacy of Adelphi’s leading social work school to a flexible curriculum designed for working professionals. While the program is primarily delivered online, we include two annual, required on-campus experiences due to the importance of building relationships in the social work field. Many students tell us that the on-campus training is a highlight of their education.
Along with the normal track, we also have an Advanced Standing option of our MSW program specifically designed for students who graduated from an accredited BSW program in the last five years. In this alternative, professionals have the opportunity to earn an MSW part-time in just 15 months.
There is also a Human Service Professionals track that students can complete in three years. In this program, professionals are concurrently employed in human services and are eligible to complete and employment-based field placement.
We are incredibly proud of our ability to deliver the personalized attention of an in-person education to the online classroom. Our graduates complete the program prepared to become Licensed Master Social Workers and begin rewarding careers.
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