The medical world is a fast-paced, complex, and intimidating place for most people. Hospital stays are often scary, provoking extreme stress about serious health problems and possible financial ruin. Medical social workers relieve some of that tension for patients by providing information and resources.
The assistance that medical social workers provide in easing the transition from the care facility to the next stage of treatment helps ensure patients' long-term convalescence. As executors of post-hospitalization plans for patients, medical social workers ensure that follow-up treatments, such as physical therapy, are taken care of. In summary, all the details that might overwhelm a patient are taken care of by his or her medical social worker.
How Can a Medical Social Worker Help?
Medical social workers take the difficulties out of the health care system for patients, providing welcome help and advice for those recovering from the trauma of a hospital stay. Typically assigned to specific patient populations, they consult with patients and continually assess if they are on track with their physicians’ treatment plans.
Initial patient psychosocial assessments inform social workers of the emotional, social, and environmental issues related to patients' diagnoses and life situations. Often this includes interviews with family members to determine the nature of available home care or other home-related considerations such as the delivery of oxygen.
It's common for medical social workers to be responsible for creating patients' post-hospital treatment plans. Based on information in medical files and directives from various professionals on patients' therapeutic teams, medical social workers outline goals and preferable outcomes, and establish pathways for progress and achievement.
The medical social worker then coordinates the resources necessary for a patient’s care. This might include placement in a therapeutic or rehabilitation center for a specified period of time. Or, it might require the establishment of basic living resources such as help with cooking and chores in the home, home nurses, or transportation to a counseling center to counter post-hospitalization depression or other psychological issues.
These kinds of arrangements are particularly important for the elderly or those for whom post-hospital treatment is essential.
Where do Medical Social Workers Work?
Hospitals, clinics and therapeutic facilities where post-hospital interventions are common employ the largest number of medical social workers on a regular basis. They perform much of the administrative work and are often the human interface that patients depend on when entering the medical system.
Facilities with underprivileged or predominantly immigrant patient populations also need medical social workers. These facilities hire those fluent in another language, for example, or who have specialized skills for handling difficult social conditions requiring culturally sensitive treatment.
Medical Social Workers are Members of Therapeutic Teams
Medical social workers are typically part of an interdisciplinary medical team. As the team members closest to patients, social workers are responsible for maintaining interactive relationships with patients, and communicating their ongoing conditions to team members. They also keep the comprehensive case management files that document a patient’s progress relative to the overall treatment plan.
Medical social workers spend their days working on their assigned patient loads, consulting with nurses and physicians about patient care, conferring with patients, planning discharges and other treatment arrangements, and dealing with various crises that arise. All this requires a substantial knowledge of medical terminology, diagnostic and assessment procedures, and the ability to work positively and effectively with health care providers as well as patients.
Because they typically work with people in medical crises, medical social workers need to have exceptional communication skills. They are not only required to work with patients, they are also required to communicate patients’ needs and conditions to the medical team. To do this, they must be knowledgeable about medical diagnoses and treatment requirements.
Education and Counseling
Medical social workers must be adept at translating medical jargon into terminology that the average patient will understand. Since it is their job to provide patients with the medical information they need to recover, medical social workers depend not only on their administrative skills, but also on their ability to anticipate and express the concerns of their patients.
For example, illnesses such as heart disease or diabetes often require lifelong medications, specific diets, and regular monitoring. Educating family members about the risks of their loved ones' illnesses is often a difficult but necessary task – especially if compliance with certain activities is pivotal to recovery. They teach patients and family members the importance of administering time-sensitive statin drugs, conduct frequent glucose testing, or give insulin shots, helping everyone to understand the importance of medical compliance.
If a patient begins exhibiting poor mental health, such as depression or anger, medical social workers contact the appropriate team members and arrange for a mental health evaluation. Patient attitude is pivotal to recovery, and social workers understand that the stress of illness and treatments can undermine recovery.
Counseling is a form of education that helps patients cope with the trauma of illnesses and therapies such as chemotherapy and radiation. Medical social workers counsel patients, providing therapeutic support as they face serious medical conditions, limitations in their mobility, and adjustments in their living conditions. Helping patients work through their grief and fear of health-related life transitions relieves stress and anxiety.
Social workers also facilitate therapeutic support groups for patients struggling with serious illnesses. The mental health benefits of bonding with people who are going through the same problems enable patients to gain better perspectives on personal outcomes.
Crisis intervention is another area of social work specialization, a specialization to help trauma victims. Individuals who have experienced child abuse, rape, domestic violence, or who are suicidal, find comforting, healthy support and therapeutic advice in short-term and long-term counseling services offered by medical social workers. They help individuals find shelters, safehouses, rehabilitation facilities, financial aid, and mental health services, as well as provide practical advice.
Medical social workers are, in all instances, advocates for their patients. They are often the eyes and ears of the therapeutic team, yet they serve patients' best interests. They express concerns to the team, and they ensure that the patient's physical, psychological, and social needs are identified and fulfilled. They also ensure that patient rights are respected and addressed.
In serving both patients and the medical team, medical social workers quickly learn to spot potential problems and expediently find solutions. The skills of both diplomacy and problem-solving makes medical social workers invaluable team players.
Educational Requirements for Medical Social Workers
While a bachelor's degree in social work along with at least 400 hours of supervised fieldwork is the basic requirement for a position as a social worker, medical social workers are generally required to have a master's degree in social work (MSW) along with at least 1000 hours of supervised clinical work to qualify for a position in most hospital or clinical settings.
State agencies sometimes hire social workers with bachelor's degrees, but an MSW is necessary to advance in most departments. Find schools offering degree programs in social work to get started.
In addition, all states have licensure regulations that require applicants to have completed specific levels of schooling as well as many hours of supervised fieldwork. To know more refer to state licensing requirements for social workers.
In preparation for a career as a medical social worker, a determined student should find a volunteer or entry-level position in a health-related facility. Spending several years in such a facility supports student applications to both undergraduate and graduate social work programs and could possibly be applied to states' licensing regulations.
How Much do Medical Social Workers Make?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that job prospects for medical social workers are expected to grow much faster than average through 2018 – by as much as 22%.
The median salary range in 2008 for medical social workers was between $35,550 and $57,690, which was the same range in 2010. Typically, specialized hospitals appear to offer slightly better salaries than smaller medical facilities or government agencies.