Careers in Medical Social Work: What’s the Prognosis?

If you were to ask two medical social workers to describe their typical days, you’re bound to hear two very different answers. That’s because the social work positions available to professionals with a master’s in social work are limitless within the healthcare industry. What is medical social work? It’s a career track that allows passionate individuals to carve their own paths while performing meaningful work every day.

Social workers have played a role in healthcare since the early 1900s, when it was first realized that economic, social, family, and psychological conditions are often inextricably linked to patients’ conditions and their healthcare options. The profession of medical social work — also known as clinical and healthcare social work — was created to establish and uphold quality standards of patient care regardless of ethnicity and social class, and to educate healthcare professionals about the social aspects of medicine.1

The majority of social workers specializing in healthcare are employed by hospitals, and there are countless other outpatient medical facilities and clinics with a demand for candidates with big hearts and the right credentials — a master’s of social work and a social work license – for instance. Social workers find jobs in rehabilitation centers, assisted living facilities, managed care organizations, hospice care centers and other private and public healthcare providers. Job titles include medical case manager, mental health counselor, family therapist, clinical program manager, outpatient health specialist, and community coordinator.

Whatever the setting, a medical social worker’s top priority is helping patients and their families navigate the emotional, social, and mental aspects of the healthcare process. It’s a hands-on profession that demands compassion, empathy, and tenacity. Depending on their role, medical social workers may be present throughout many stages of a patient’s journey, from admission and treatment to discharge and continuing care. They may review new patient files to find individuals in need of support, whether it’s through supportive counseling in the face of a difficult prognosis, psychopathology, making medical decisions, or assistance understanding healthcare resources, insurance issues, and policies. A social worker’s job responsibilities might include serving as a family therapist for sick children and their guardians, helping a middle-aged cancer patient come to terms with a prognosis, or acting as a resident services coordinator within a senior health facility.

As a patient’s No. 1 advocate, medical social workers often form special bonds with patients, some of which may last a lifetime. Patients and their families look to them as resources for guidance, advocacy, and sometimes, a shoulder to cry on. And while no two medical social workers will experience the same rewards and challenges day to day, they will have one thing in common: a shared calling to help make things better for people in need through a career in social work.

1Social Service Review, “Ida Cannon, Ethel Cohen and Early Medical Social Work in Boston: The Foundations of a Model of Culturally Competent Social Service,” March 2007. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/511013?type=ref&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents