Social scientists know that an individual's health and well-being is directly influenced by his or her social environment, and by extension, the health and well-being of a community is directly affected by that of its citizens. Public health social work is based on this interconnectedness.
Public health social workers deal with both the complex systems that affect the health of communities and larger populations, as well as the specific factors that affect the health of individuals. Supporting the interdependency of people and their communities requires a skilled, broad perspective that identifies systemic problems, and initiates preventive measures to address those problems.
The following systemic problems are some of society's most pernicious and persistent issues:
- A lack of opportunities
- Inadequate education
- Compromised health resulting from inadequate medical care
- Poor nutrition
- Mental health issues that accompany despair
- Child and spousal abuse
What is Public Health Social Work?
Public health social work is a multidisciplinary approach to addressing local and national social health problems. The solutions to these problems are the result of cooperation among members from several disciplines including:
- Researchers in the social and medical sciences;
- Medical professionals such as community nurses and doctors; and
- Public health social workers.
How do Public Health Social Workers Serve the Public?
Public health social workers contribute to public health solutions by focusing on one of three general areas of work. The boundaries between these areas are often blurred because social workers advising individuals often find clusters of people suffering from the same problems.
Individual Level or Local Level.
On the local level, public health social workers advise individuals, intervening to provide important resources such as food stamps, housing, and financial assistance in ways similar to other social workers. In addition, public health social workers also guide clients toward healthier lifestyles. They try to cultivate a client's interest in higher levels of education, and encourage the development of dignity and self-sufficiency.
In government agencies such as departments of health and human services, public health social workers use their keen understanding of human behavior to help clients reshape their lives. Success at the local level depends on helping clients resolve basic survival issues so that they can move their focus from mere existence to improving their prospects. Education, employment, and volunteering in their communities expand clients' perspectives of themselves, evolving from being victims to having greater self-determination.
Public health social workers also work in hospitals and clinics, providing the same sort of information and resources as medical social workers, only with a bit more focus on helping patients participate in support programs. Or they may administer programs, such as teen substance abuse prevention or programs for single moms, reaching a larger numbers of clients, and extending their influence from the individual to the greater community.
Public health social workers who work on the community level focus more on identifying larger social problems and finding ways of protecting and improving the health of larger populations. Sometimes this involves community activism, such as brainstorming economic development plans for a community health center or recreational area.
Community medical programs often employ social workers who have a public health emphasis. They develop educational and support programs for populations of patients suffering from long-term chronic illnesses, often training their families in their ongoing care. Although they probably work in hospitals, their interest is in finding solutions for social issues common to all medical communities. Issues such as aging require systems and programs tailored to meet the needs of individuals but which also guarantee a consistent, high level of standardized care.
National Policy Level.
At the highest level, public health social workers develop national policies intended to address issues seen as threats to the health and well-being of the nation. Their broader perspective allows them to recognize and analyze widespread symptoms, and many get involved in researching solutions. Their goal is to create policies that address issues such as teenage smoking or childhood obesity, and other issues that affect the health of the general population .
Changing the habits of a nation, however, is a slow process. And public health social worker’s greatest challenge is to forge the pathways that allow money and resources to flow into social infrastructures that create awareness and allow change. But change is possible. Consider, for example, the public health campaign that propagated the national polio vaccines of the 1950s,
Other notable interventions and campaigns that public health social workers started are the following:
- Awareness of prenatal and natal care;
- Family planning;
- Fluoridated drinking water;
- Control of infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis and measles;
- Motor vehicle safety;
- Workplace safety standards;
- Reduction of tobacco use – especially among teens;
- Annual flu vaccines, and
- Handwashing campaigns to prevent the spread of diseases and illnesses.
In an ongoing effort to reduce the suffering of society’s most vulnerable, public health social workers are leaders among those addressing looming social problems. Those who work at the policy level are often the researchers and authors of social legislation that will provide new possibilities. For example, national policies crafted with the intent of becoming law, such as Medicare and Medicaid, are born out of the efforts of public health social workers.
It's at the public health policy level that the most far-reaching questions concerning the health of the nation are considered. These questions also answer the mandate of public health social work - to improve the quality of individual lives, to increase the well-being of their communities, and to secure the health of the nation. Becoming a public health social worker is a calling to those who want to make a difference in the world. It is intensely interesting, often challenging, and occasionally exhausting, but it is a career path that offers great satisfaction.
Education and Licensing Requirements
Because public health social workers are often regarded as leaders in the efforts to invoke national change, most positions request applicants have their master's in social work plus at least a thousand hours of supervised clinic work. Those with bachelor's degrees in social work plus at least 400 hours of supervised clinic work will likely find entry-level positions, but will need to eventually get the higher degree in order to progress. For more information see schools offering social work degree programs.
Each state has its own licensing process to ensure the quality of practicing social workers. Normally, procedures require applicants to have completed specific levels of schooling in addition to a state-specified number of clinical hours. Check with your state licensing agency to find out what that amount is for your state. For more information see state licensing requirements for social workers.
There are innumerable opportunities for determined students to volunteer and gain valuable experience in agencies and facilities in their communities. The several years spent working in a professional social work environment will be of significant impact in applications for college and graduate school.
How Much do Public Health Social Workers Make?
Job prospects for public health social workers are considered to be good as the geriatric populations increase and require more programs and greater care. Positions are slated to grow much faster than the economy – possibly by as much as 22% through 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The median salary in 2010 for public health social workers was $46,650 with a possible high of over $66,000 a year.