A mother just discovered her child has cancer. A father was just in a car accident and is now paralyzed. A family is grappling to make ends meet after the loss of a breadwinner. In times like such, when the world feels like it’s crumbling, families and patients need someone to pick up the pieces and offer hope. They need a healthcare social worker.
If you’re one of those people who think social workers are just glorified case managers, then you’re wrong. The truth is that social workers have a variety of essential duties and responsibilities to fulfill in the healthcare field. From patient advocacy to psychological counseling, social workers play a vital role in patients’ overall care.
So, if you’re curious about what social workers do day-to-day, keep reading. Their contribution to the healthcare team may surprise you.
What is Social Work in Healthcare?
At its core, healthcare social work is about improving the lives of patients and families. It’s a patient-centered field focusing on providing direct services to those in need.
Healthcare social workers work in hospitals, clinics, or other healthcare settings. They often have direct contact with patients and their families. But they also work with other healthcare team members, such as doctors, nurses, and therapists.
To enter the healthcare social work field, you’ll need at least a bachelor’s degree in social work. But many employers pick candidates with a master’s degree, especially for higher positions. If career advancement is on your list, enrolling in MSW programs online might be the right move. What’s best is that online learning allows you to work alongside continuing education.
Types of Medical Social Workers
One of the first essential things you’ll learn in your social work program is that different types of social workers exist. Each has a different specialization and focus. Here are some common titles of social workers you’ll find in healthcare:
- Clinical Social Worker
- AIDS/HIV Social Worker
- Discharge Planner
- Public Welfare Worker
- Transition Specialist
- Disability Advocate
Duties and Responsibilities of Healthcare Social Workers
The type of social work you do determines your responsibilities. But in general, healthcare social workers have a set of duties essential to the care of patients and families. These include:
1. Patient and Family Education, Therapy, and Counselling
Most patients and families have many questions when they’re first diagnosed with an illness or injury. They might not understand their treatment options, have doubts about their prognosis, or struggle to cope with the emotional fallout of their diagnosis.
That’s where healthcare social workers come in. It’s their job to educate patients and families about their condition, treatment options, and what they can expect. They might also provide therapy to help patients and families deal with the psychological impacts of their diagnosis.
2. Mass Education
Healthcare social workers also play an important role in mass education, especially when the case is related to a public health crisis or a natural disaster.
Under their guidance, social workers can develop and implement community-wide education campaigns.
For example, during the Ebola outbreak of 2014, healthcare social workers were on the frontlines educating communities about the disease and offering assistance in how to prevent its spread.
Substance abuse, HIV/AIDS, and domestic violence are other public health issues that social workers often address through mass education.
3. Resource Navigation
Patients and families often need help navigating the complex world of healthcare. For example, they might not know where to find the necessary resources or how to apply for financial assistance.
Healthcare social workers are there to help. They can connect patients and families with the necessary resources, such as housing, food, and transportation. They can also help them navigate the often-confusing world of insurance and financial assistance programs.
This part of their wide-ranging duties proves helpful when the patient is elderly with no family support or when the family is struggling to make ends meet.
Social workers are natural advocates. It’s one of the core tenets of social work.
In healthcare, advocacy takes many forms. For example, it might involve working with patients and families to navigate the healthcare system. It might also include working with policymakers to change legislation that impacts healthcare.
For example, social workers were instrumental in the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Their advocacy and expertise helped make a case for this groundbreaking legislation.
Other examples of advocacy in healthcare include working to improve access to care for underserved populations and fighting for the rights of patients with disabilities.
5. Arranging Outpatient Treatments
After a patient is discharged from the hospital, they often need to continue receiving treatment on an outpatient basis. It might involve physical therapy, seeing a specialist, or taking medication.
Healthcare social workers might make appointments for the patient, help them find transportation, or provide financial assistance.
Patients needing this type of support are typically those with chronic conditions or mental health disorders. Substance abuse disorders are another example of patients requiring outpatient treatment.
6. Conducting Staff Training
Since most medical social workers are licensed and have a master’s degree, they are uniquely qualified to provide staff training.
They often conduct training on cultural competency, patient rights, and end-of-life care. These are essential topics that all healthcare staff need to be trained on to ensure optimal patient care. Social workers might also cover discharge planning and working with patients with chronic conditions.
Staff training is important for social workers to share their expertise and enhance the quality of care for all patients. It helps boost revenue for the healthcare facility as well.
7. Working with Specialty Populations
Some patient populations require special care and attention. These include victims of abuse, the homeless, refugees, and victims of natural disasters.
Healthcare social workers might work in a shelter, a soup kitchen, or a hospital. They might also work in a school or a community center.
Working with these populations can be challenging, but it is also gratifying. It’s a fulfilling part of being a healthcare social worker.
Healthcare social workers are vital to healthcare facilities. But, they, too, face many challenges. They often have large caseloads and are understaffed. It can lead to burnout.
Social workers are sometimes forced to choose between providing quality care and meeting deadlines. It’s a difficult position to be in, especially given the challenging nature of this field.