Social workers are tasked with improving people’s overall well-being, especially the most vulnerable populations. 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.
It’s no surprise that one of the largest fields of practice in social work is healthcare. 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 educate healthcare professionals about medicine’s social aspects.1
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 to promote healthy lifestyles, prevent diseases, and address barriers to access.
Suppose 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. In that case, 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 right for you.
Job Responsibilities of a Medical Social Worker
The daily challenges and responsibilities of being a medical social worker vary depending on the healthcare setting, including 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.
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As a medical social worker, helping the patient and their family is your top priority. Your responsibilities and duties will change from day to day and from patient to patient.
You will become their primary advocate, helping them through a difficult time that can often take a toll on a patient physically, financially, and emotionally.
By being at their side as both a guide and a compassionate listener, you can play a key role in changing their experience and their outcomes.
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 healthcare team members, 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.
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 medical equipment, linking patients with social service providers, and coordinating home care services.
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. Still, they may also advocate for patients’ rights in general through policymaking 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 have2:
- 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.
Regarding 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.
Careers in Medical Social Work
The social work positions available to professionals with a master’s in social work are limitless within the healthcare industry. It’s a career track that allows passionate individuals to carve their own paths while performing meaningful work every day.
The majority of social workers specializing in healthcare are employed by hospitals. There are numerous 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. 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
- Community coordinator
- Serving as a family therapist for sick children and their guardians.
- Helping a middle-aged cancer patient come to terms with a prognosis.
- Acting as a resident services coordinator within a senior health facility.
Where Do Medical Social Workers Work?
A medical social worker has many options for employment in a variety of settings, such as:
- Assisted Living Facilities
- Rehabilitation Centers
- Managed Care Organizations
- Hospice Care Centers
- Other Public and Private Health Care Providers
Qualities Needed to Excel as a Medical Social Worker
Social work is a hands-on profession that demands compassion, empathy, and tenacity. Becoming a medical social worker requires a combination of education and interpersonal skills. In addition to having a master’s in social work, you’ll need the following attributes:
Whether you want to advance in health care practice or start a brand-new career as a medical social worker, Our Lady of the Lake University’s online Master of Social Work degree program can help you get there fast. Request more information or call 855-275-1082 to speak with an admissions advisor.
- Social 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
- Social Work Best Practice Healthcare Case Management Standards