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What Does a Medical Social Worker Do?

Social workers are tasked with improving people’s overall wellbeing, especially the most vulnerable populations. It’s no surprise that one of the largest fields of practice in social work is healthcare. Medical social workers provide frontline services to patients and their families to help alleviate the social, financial, and psychological hardships related to adverse health conditions. Medical social workers also provide important services aimed at promoting healthy lifestyles, preventing diseases, and addressing barriers to access.

If you want to serve people in the midst of challenging medical issues and make sure that individuals and their families don’t suffer unnecessarily due to socioeconomic barriers, you might consider becoming a medical social worker. Read on to find out what medical social workers do to decide if this challenging and rewarding career is a right for you.

Day-to-Day Activities of a Medical Social Worker

The daily challenges and responsibilities of being a medical social worker vary depending on the healthcare setting, which includes hospitals, nursing homes, assisted care facilities, and residential treatment centers. Generally speaking, medical social workers are part of an interdisciplinary team of care providers and allied health professionals who work in concert to serve patients with conditions spanning the entire healthcare continuum.

Some of the primary work activities of a medical social worker include:

  • Patient Intake Screening

    Patients with a history of mental illness or who meet other high-risk criteria usually undergo an initial screening with a medical social worker. The social worker performs a comprehensive assessment of the patient’s social, emotional, environmental, and financial needs. The results are shared with other members of the healthcare team, as they may affect the patient’s treatment plan and prognosis.

  • Patient Counseling and Education

    Medical social workers help patients and their families cope with the emotional and social responses to illness and treatment. They also educate patients and their families on entitlements, community resources, and health insurance coverage. They may also lead support group discussions or provide individual counseling.

  • Discharge Planning

    Before a patient is discharged, the medical social worker handling the case will ensure that the services the patient requires are in place and that the patient will be properly cared for at home. This can mean arranging for resources to pay for medications and/or medical equipment, linking patients with social service providers, and coordinating home care services.

  • Patient Advocacy

    A medical social worker is first and foremost a patient advocate. It’s the responsibility of the social worker to ensure that a patient’s wishes are followed. Social workers can directly advocate on behalf of the patient by facilitating communication with healthcare providers or arranging health insurance coverage, but they may also advocate for patients’ rights in general through policy making and thought leadership.

Medical Social Worker Requirements: Education, Training, Experience

Similar to one’s job duties, the requirements to work as a medical social worker can vary depending on the type of healthcare setting. But again, general observations can be made about the education, training, and experience requirements for medical social work. Check with your state’s Board of Social Worker Examiners for official requirements.

The Society for Social Work Leadership in Health Care (SSWLHC) developed the following education and training standards for social workers in the medical field. Although these best practice standards are not universal, they do represent the education and training most practicing medical social workers have1:

  • Be a graduate from a Master of Social Work (MSW) program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).
  • Maintain current professional state social work licensure/certification or national social work certification.
  • Complete two years of master’s-level work experience related to the psychosocial needs of the served population.
  • Adhere to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics.

In regards to education, the importance of an MSW degree for medical social workers is underscored by the Occupational Information Network (O*NET), a free online database sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor. According to the database, 92% of medical social workers have a master’s degree.

Whether you’re already working in the field and want to transition or advance in health care practice, or you have the desire to start a brand-new career as a medical social worker, Our Lady of the Lake University’s Master of Social Work degree program can help you get there fast. Depending on your background, you can earn your MSW online in two to three and a half years. Request more information or call 855-275-1082 to speak with an admissions advisor.


1. Social Work Best Practice Healthcare Case Management Standards