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Medical Social Worker
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  Who is a Medical Social Worker?

A Medical Social Worker is a social worker who works in a medical setting such as a hospital, outpatient clinic, hospice, long-term care facility, or community health agency. It is important to note that Medical Social Workers are most often referred to as “social workers,” but occasionally may have other titles, including Case/Care Manager.

  What does a Medical Social Worker do?

Medical Social Workers assist patients and their families with health-related problems and concerns. The Medical Social Worker performs a comprehensive assessment of a patient’s social, emotional, environmental, financial, and support needs and informs other members of the health care team about these factors, which may affect the patient’s health and well-being. Medical Social Workers work with the patient’s family or support systems as well as other service provider agencies to develop a plan for the care of the patient in his or her home or other living arrangement.

Patient counseling is an important part of the Medical Social Worker’s role. Medical Social Workers lead support group discussions, provide individual counseling, help patients determine appropriate health care and other health services, and provide support to patients with serious or chronic illnesses.

In the hospital setting, Medical Social Workers play an important role in coordinating patient discharge planning. They assist patients and families, access in-home health care services, arrange for in-home medical equipment, provide for transportation, coordinate follow-up treatments, and refer patients to a wide variety of community social service agencies. Medical Social Workers are often also responsible for helping patients access financial assistance and health insurance coverage. In some settings, Medical Social Workers work closely with public and private health insurers to determine the patient’s benefits and advocate for the patient.

  What education, training, and experience must one have to function as a Medical Social Worker?

The large majority of Medical Social Workers have a master’s degree in social work (MSW). The MSW program provides both fundamental social work knowledge and the opportunity to focus on a special area. Most Medical Social Workers have specific training in health and behavioral health conditions, health care policy, and systems of providing health care services. All MSW training includes a significant amount of time in a practicum experience known as a field placement. Occasionally, a social worker in a health care setting may have a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW), an undergraduate degree in which social work courses are undertaken in the last two years of study. BSW students also must complete a practicum experience as part of their degree requirements.

  How and by whom is a Medical Social Worker supervised?

The Medical Social Worker in a hospital or health clinic often works as part of a social work department. The Medical Social Worker is supervised by experienced Medical Social Workers who are supervisors or department directors. In hospitals and larger health care facilities, the director of the social work department is usually a member of the medical center’s administrative team. In some instances, Medical Social Workers may report to the administrator of a particular department within a hospital. In smaller community health agencies, and often in long-term care facilities, the Medical Social Worker may be the only social worker employed at the agency. In this instance, the Medical Social Worker is generally supervised by a health care administrator.

  What are the typical day-to-day activities of a Medical Social Worker?

The typical day-to-day activities of a Medical Social Worker vary considerably depending on the health care setting. In the hospital, the Medical Social Worker has a critical role in the area of discharge planning. It is the Medical Social Worker’s responsibility to ensure that the services the patient requires are in place in order to facilitate a timely discharge and ensure that the patient’s needs will be cared for at home.

The Medical Social Worker does a complete psychosocial assessment on all patients referred for social work services by the physician. After the assessment has been completed, the Medical Social Worker works with the patient, his or her family, and other health professionals to develop a discharge plan. When the doctor determines that the patient will be ready for discharge soon, it is the Medical Social Worker’s job to implement the plan by arranging for the home care services, coordinating transportation, working with the family to facilitate the discharge, and providing other appropriate services/referrals for the patient’s care at home.

Due to the high number of patients for whom the Medical Social Worker is responsible and the tight deadlines required to avoid delays in discharge, medical social work is a highly demanding job. In addition, the Medical Social Worker often is confronted with complex cases involving patients with multiple psychosocial issues.

A Medical Social Worker usually participates as a member of a health care team to identify the patient’s needs and develop a treatment plan. Medical Social Workers also provide counseling services to individual patients and their families; provide support groups for patients and/or caregivers; collaborate with other social service provider agencies; link individuals to resources; and help restore individuals, families, and groups to successful social functioning. A major role of the Medical Social Worker is to be an advocate for the patient and, at times, an advocate for broader social causes.

  Must a Medical Social Worker be licensed or certified to function in his or her role as part of the health care team?

Each state has different licensing, certification, or registration requirements regarding social work. Although standards for licensing vary, a growing number of states are placing greater emphasis on communication skills, professional ethics, and sensitivity to issues of cultural diversity. Most states require a certain amount of supervised clinical experience for licensure of clinical social workers. Although not required in order to practice, many health care agencies require Medical Social Workers to be licensed, and most insurance providers require a Medical Social Worker to be licensed in order to reimburse for services.

The National Association of Social Workers offers voluntary credentials. Social workers with an MSW may be eligible for the Academy of Certified Social Workers (ACSW), the Qualified Clinical Social Worker (QCSW), or the Diplomate in Clinical Social Work (DCSW) credential, based on their professional experience. Credentials are particularly important for those in private practice; some health insurance providers require social workers to have them in order to be reimbursed for services.

  What types of patients would benefit from the care of a Medical Social Worker?

Many, if not all, patients could benefit from the care of a Medical Social Worker. In particular, individuals with chronic degenerative illnesses; the terminally ill; individuals with mental illness; transplant patients; homeless individuals; and individuals with multiple social, financial, emotional, or housing problems.

  How and when does a Medical Social Worker become involved in the care of a particular patient?

In many health care settings, the physician requests social work services. In some settings, all patients receive social work services.

  Professional organizations for Medical Social Workers:

Contributed by:
Nancy A. Morrow, MSW, School of Social Policy and Practice, University of Pennsylvania

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