A Medical Social Work degree qualifies professionals for many jobs providing support for patients in healthcare settings such as hospitals. Anyone who’s ever faced a new diagnosis, injury, or other health condition, knows that dealing with healthcare can be overwhelming. Processing information, making treatment decisions, navigating healthcare systems, and accessing services can be incredibly difficult and complex.
Managing your healthcare is even harder when you’re fully absorbed in dealing with your symptoms. In these challenging healthcare situations, a medical social worker can be a lifeline. These specialized social workers assess and support patients in a healthcare setting such as a hospital or other medical settings. They are from all walks of life and with all sorts of diagnoses, both individually and as part of a medical treatment team.
A Career in Medical Social Work
Do you enjoy helping others, project calm in moments of distress, and thrive on encountering new people and experiences. If so, a degree in medical social work may be right for you. Medical social workers are compassionate caregivers and also competent, decisive managers. They educate, advise, and advocate. And because treatments, rules, and procedures in the healthcare system are constantly changing, medical social workers are always learning and evolving in their professional approach.
There has been massive growth in the healthcare sector in recent years, and the need for medical social workers is high- and rising higher. Medical social workers are in higher demand and are better paid on average, than other social workers.
To become a medical social worker, you’ll need the right degree, the right experience, and the right licensure. Understanding the field of medical social work and choosing a strong program that will help you move toward your career goals is essential.
- What is Social Work?
- What is Medical Social Work?
- What Do Medical Social Workers Do?
- What Degree do I Need for Medical Social Work?
- What Classes Will I take for a Degree in Medical Social Work?
- What Medical Social Work Credentials Will I Need?
- What Jobs Can I Get with a Degree in Medical Social Work?
- What is the Job Market for Medical Social Work?
- What are the Pros and Cons of a Degree in Medical Social Work?
What is Social Work?
Social Work is, at its most basic level, a profession devoted to assisting those in need. This includes helping people access support services, providing psychotherapy and Medical Social Work, improving community access to social services, and advocating for groups and individuals. The International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) defines the social work profession in the following way:
“a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people.”
Of course, “people in need” is a very broad category. The needs of, say, a survivor of domestic abuse, will be very different from the needs of a child with leukemia. For this reason, social workers are broken up into several groups, each with specific training in supporting a different population.
Types of social workers include:
- Child, Family, and School Social Workers
- Medical Social Workers
- Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers
- Social Workers – all other
What is Medical Social Work?
As we’ve briefly noted above, medical social workers serve those people in need whose problems are related to physical health. Medical social workers are also sometimes called:
- healthcare social workers or health care social worker
- hospital social workers or hospital social worker
- patient care social workers or patient care social worker
- public health social workers or public health social worker
These professionals provide individual patients, families, and groups with the psychosocial support that they need when facing acute, chronic, or terminal illness and injuries. Medical social work also supports those undergoing life changes related to health, such as those who are newly long-term disabled.
Those who are facing a health problem are usually fully occupied with coping with their day-to-day living. Patients may be in pain, have difficulty taking care of themselves, experience impaired cognition, or be in emotional distress. Patients are usually not in the best position to deal with issues like planning for their rehabilitation, communicating with care providers, navigating discharge procedures, or finding community support groups. Doctors, physicians, and nurses are charged with managing patients’ physical wellness, but who helps patients with their psychosocial wellness? This is the role that medical social workers play.
Healthcare Social Workers help patients directly by providing psychotherapeutic counseling and advocating for their needs within a medical setting. Furthermore, they connect patients with support services, and also plan long-term care. Also, support the families of patients and coordinate care with other medical service providers.
Quebec’s professional organization for medical social workers (the OPTSQ) defines the duties of the medical social work job as follows:
“to restore balance in an individual’s personal, family and social life, in order to help that person maintain or recover his/her health and strengthen his/her ability to adapt and reintegrate into society.”
What Do Medical Social Workers Do?
Medical social workers have a defined role, yet their duties are varied. Medical social workers are aligned with hospitals and medical institutions. But, they also represent, and advocate for, the interests of patients. That means they serve at the intersection between patients and care providers. A medical social worker may work with nurses, physical therapists, doctors, discharge coordinators, and also the administrative staff. Therefore, they need excellent interpersonal and communication skills like active listening and good time management.
On a daily basis, healthcare social workers will likely work with several patients who are part of a caseload. A healthcare social worker’s caseload will regularly change as individual patients and clients are admitted and also discharged. Essential responsibilities center around helping individuals navigate the health system. They assist with medication questions or help individuals understand inpatient and outpatient treatments. A medical social worker may also provide grief counseling and mental health support for patients and families coping with a terminal illness.
Below are Some of the medical social workers responsibilities and specific duties performed by a medical social worker.
Assessing the needs of new patients
This is the first step taken once a healthcare social worker has been assigned a new client. They determine these needs based on information provided by doctors and by the medical challenges of the patient.
Coordinating healthcare services
Medical social workers are responsible for finding community resources and arranging services, especially as part of the discharge and recovery process. Discharge planning by hospital social workers may include medical equipment rentals, home health care, and finding transportation to follow-up doctor visits.
Facilitating medical management tasks
Caring for new health issues involves handling new prescriptions, filling out new paperwork, securing funding sources, and connecting with new support groups. Medical social workers use their knowledge and experience to help patients and their families navigate healthcare systems and social support services, which can be complicated.
Patients and their families must make difficult decisions related to their care. This may include choosing whether to undergo a risky procedure, choosing whether to end life support, or deciding whether to continue medication in spite of side effects. A healthcare social worker can help explain the treatment options, which may be new and confusing, and the risks and benefits associated with each.
Managing a medical condition is a major undertaking. Patients must learn to take charge of their treatments, cope with symptoms, and manage the impact of their condition on their work, family, and mental health. Health care social workers lead classes on living with conditions like Alzheimer’s, blindness, and HIV.
As with all human services professions, medical social workers are expected to advocate for positive changes at the level of society. So, a medical social worker advises and supports reforms in healthcare policy that will remove barriers to care, enhance health outcomes, and improve lives.
As with other areas of social work, medical social workers are usually full-time employees. Because medical issues can occur at any hour, a medical social worker may be on call outside of regular business hours. In addition, they may sometimes work evenings and weekends. They may also work in multiple locations, including inpatient hospitals, outpatient clinics, homes, and in the community.
What Degree Do I Need for Medical Social Work?
Becoming a clinical social worker is a long and rigorous process by design. Because these professionals serve vulnerable populations, it’s essential that only the most competent, ethical, and thoroughly trained individuals fill this role. For this reason, prospective social workers should prepare for a long qualifying process and commit to continuing their education throughout the course of their careers.
To become a clinical social worker, you’ll need a master’s degree and 2 years of supervised clinical experience. Most social workers earn a bachelor’s in social work before going on to earn their master’s degree. But it’s also possible to start with a bachelor’s degree in a related field, such as sociology, women’s studies, or psychology.
Most states require social workers to take continuing education credits every year or two. They can earn CE credits by acquiring a certain number of clinical hours. Or, they complete a class in an area like domestic violence or substance abuse.
There are undergraduate and graduate programs in Social Work. Some entry-level counseling and administrative roles are open to people with only a bachelor’s in social work (BSW), though clinical social work roles require full credentialing. Many people choose to gain workplace experience in social services after earning their bachelor’s and before earning a master’s in social work. They may focus on the elderly, homelessness outreach, or special education. This can allow prospective social workers to build their resumes with training and expertise. And they explore areas of specialty for a future job.
A master’s degree in social work (MSW) is a professional graduate degree that generally takes two years to complete on a full-time basis. Some schools offer an accelerated bachelor’s to master’s degree in social work, so students earn both degrees in five years. Prospective medical social workers may find this route ideal.
What Classes Will I Take for a Degree in Medical Social Work?
Every university designs its own curriculum for bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work, and the structure and content of these are not fixed across the board. But programs that are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) have met, and maintain rigorous quality standards.
Students considering a future in healthcare social work should look for a CSWE-accredited program. Attending an accredited program means a shorter path to licensure, and also gives students the security of knowing that their education meets standards for current workplace competencies. There are several hundred CSWE-accredited education programs at both the bachelor’s and master’s levels, including both on-campus and online degree options.
At the bachelor’s degree level, students can expect to take classes for your major that include titles such as:
- Public Policy and Advocacy
- Foundations of Social Work
- Case Management
- Child Abuse and Neglect
- Theories of Human Behavior
- Lifespan Development
A master’s in social work prepares graduates for professional practice through advanced coursework in skills like clinical assessment and case management. An MSW program typically takes two years to complete, and the curriculum combines theory with practical skills.
Typical classes graduate students can expect to take in an MSW program include:
- Research for Evidence-Based Social Work Practice
- Diversity and Social Justice
- Data Analysis and Interpretation
- Social Policy, Welfare, and Change
- Foundations of Medical Social Work
- Psychopathology and Diagnosis for Social Work Practice
- Psychopharmacology and Biopsychosocial Considerations
In addition to your classes, you’ll complete a Capstone Project or Thesis in your final semester. All MSW students must also gain hands-on experience through a supervised internship under the direction of an experienced, licensed social work supervisor. As a graduate student pursuing medical social work, you’ll likely complete an internship in a hospital setting.
What Medical Social Work Credentials Will I Need?
After earning your MSW, you’ll need to take further steps before you’re qualified to practice as a clinical healthcare social worker. All states require licensure to practice clinical social work, but all states set their own licensure standards.
If you’re pursuing a career as a healthcare social worker, you’ll need to find out what the requirements for licensure are in the state where you plan to practice. The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) maintains an up-to-date list of the social work licensure requirements for each state.
Most MSW programs aim to help students prepare for licensure in the state where they are located. Students choosing an online master’s degree in social work should look for a school with a curriculum and experiential learning that align with their state’s licensure requirements.
In almost all states, qualifying as a clinical social worker requires an MSW degree and two or more years of supervised experience in a clinical setting after graduation. Prospective social workers must then pass the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) exam to become licensed. This rigorous exam covers 170 questions and takes four hours to complete.
A Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) works in clinical settings.
What Jobs Can I Get with a Degree in Medical Social Work?
A degree and license in social work will qualify you to practice as a social worker. But what your job will consist of, and where you will work, will depend on your particular role. But, there are many medical social worker jobs available!
Healthcare social workers may be employed anywhere patients receive medical treatment and support services. Medical social workers have different responsibilities depending on where they work. Below are some places where a medical social worker may find employment. A medical social worker seeking entry level employment may also work in a related field like public health.
- public health organizations
- rehabilitation centers or rehabilitation facilities
- mental health organizations
- state social services agencies
- hospice care facilities
- mental health or substance abuse treatment facilities
- nursing homes
- hospital settings like an emergency room
- outpatient clinics
- substance abuse treatment centers or substance abuse treatment facilities
- patient’s homes
- community clinics, specialized clinics, or other medical setting
main employers of a healthcare social worker
Most medical social workers are employed in hospitals. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the following institutions are the main employers of healthcare social workers:
- 43,120 – work in General Medical and Surgical Hospitals
- 22,040 – work in Individual and Family Services
- 21,350 – work in Home Health Care Services
- 13,510 – work in Nursing Care Facilities
- 13,480 – work in Outpatient Care Centers
Medical Social Worker Job Duties
As a healthcare social worker, your job duties will vary according to where you work. Many medical social workers who work in hospitals assist patients as they adjust to changes in their health. So, a medical social worker may help a patient navigate the medical system, plan support for their eventual discharge, find independent living resources, or adjust to a new physical impairment. They may also help patients understand financial and billing problems.
Medical social workers in medical settings like hospice care facilities may spend more time on psychotherapeutic activities. And healthcare social workers seeing patients for in-home care tend to focus on working with patients to improve their day-to-day functioning and access to support.
What is the Job Outlook and Market for Medical Social Work?
Job markets may be unpredictable, but healthcare will always be a basic human need. Conditions like heart disease, substance use disorder, and also diabetes are more prevalent. And as the number of senior citizens rapidly grows, so does the number of healthcare workers we need. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for medical social workers will increase 13% from 2020 to 2030. That’s higher than the national average of 8% across all professions.
Medical Social Worker Salary
Sadly, the majority of human service jobs are known for paying low salaries. But medical social workers earned an average salary of $60,840 as of May 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s a solid upper-middle class salary, according to CNBC, and about double the national average salary. Additionally, a medical social worker salary is one of the highest in Social Work specializations.
Healthcare Social Workers who work for the government take home the biggest paychecks, earning $61,190 on average. A Social Worker salary can also vary by state. Washington DC, California, Oregon, Hawaii, and also Rhode Island have the largest average salaries for medical social work. However, the cost of living also tends to be higher in these big-economy states.
What are the Pros and Cons of a Degree in Medical Social Work?
A career in medical social work certainly isn’t for everyone. Dealing with people who are experiencing the physical pain and emotional distress of serious medical problems can be very stressful. And the duties of a medical social worker include medical administration duties, which can add to the stress of bureaucracy, paperwork, and also ever-changing regulations.
Another drawback of this position is the pay. A master’s degree in social work salary of $60,000 is a comfortable income. Furthermore, working for a medical institution likely means great health benefits. But, it’s well below the average income for a person holding a master’s degree, which is around $78,000 according to a study conducted by Georgetown University researchers. Earning a social work degree is also a long process. So are earning a license, maintaining licensure requirements, and also fulfilling continuing education requirements.
reasons to be a medical social worker
In spite of these drawbacks, there are many compelling reasons to become a medical social worker. Job demand for medical social workers is soaring, which means finding a job or changing jobs will be easy for licensed social workers in the healthcare specialty.
Healthcare social workers also have the satisfaction of knowing that their work tangibly helps others. And unlike social workers in areas like addiction or geriatrics, healthcare social workers usually have lime-limited involvement with patients in their caseload. This means they can see real changes in a client’s functioning during their time working together, such as moving from hospital intake to discharge.
Medical social workers assist patients as they navigate healthcare settings. They are an essential part of a treatment team in a hospital or other healthcare settings. These professionals assist clients and help their families understand a medical diagnosis, healthcare options for specialized medical care, concerns with medications, and also treatment options. In addition, medical social workers may work with other medical professionals in the medical field to provide crisis intervention or psychological support for patients with emotional problems. They help patients and family members with life planning, finding financial resources, and other big life decisions.
Helping people through a difficult time is one of the highest possible sources of on-the-job satisfaction, and an important reason that many people seek out a healthcare social work career. For aspiring medical social workers, there is no better time to earn your degree!
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