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. They from all walks of life and with all sorts of diagnoses, both individually and as part of a medical treatment team.
If you enjoy helping others, project calm in moments of distress, and thrive on encountering new people and experiences, 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 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 towards 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 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:
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
- hospital social workers
- patient care social workers
- public health social workers
These professionals provide individual patients, families, and groups with the psychosocial support that they need when facing acute, chronic, or terminal illness and injuries. They also support 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. Pateints 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 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.
Medical social workers help patients directly by providing psychotherapeutic counseling, advocating for their needs within a medical setting, connecting patients with support services, and planing long-term care. They also support the families of patients and coordinate care with other medical service providers. Quebec’s professional association 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.
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 are admitted and discharged.
Some of the specific duties performed by medical social workers are:
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 patient themselves.
Coordinating healthcare services: Medical social workers are responsible for arranging services, especially as part of the discharge and recovery process. These 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.
Guiding decision-making: 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 a medication in spite of side effects. A healthcare social worker can help explain the options offered, which may be new and confusing, and the risks and benefits associated with each.
Educating clients: 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. Healthcare social workers lead classes on living with conditions like cAlzheimer’s, blindness, and HIV.
Social advocacy: As with all human services professions, medical social workers are expected to advocate for positive changes at the level of society. They advise on and support 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, healthcare social workers may be on call outside of regular business hours, and may sometimes work evenings and weekends. They may also work in multiple locations, including inpatient hospitals, outpatient clinics, and in homes and the community.
What Degree do I Need for Medical Social Work?
To become 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 career.
To become a clinical social worker, you’ll need a master’s degree and 2 years’ 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 on a related field, such as sociology, women’s studies, or psychology.
Some entry-level counseling and administrative roles are open to people with only a bachelor’s in social work, though clinical social work roles require full credentialing. Many people choose to gain workplace experience in social services, such as homelessness outreach or special education, after earning their bachelor’s and before earning a master’s in social work. This can allow prospective social workers to build their resumes and explore areas of specialty.
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 bachelors-to-master’s degree in social work which allows students to earn both degrees in five years.
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 is 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 social work licensure, and gives students the security of k owing their education meets standards for current workplace competencies. There are several hundred CSWE-accredited programs at both the bachelor’s and master’s level, including both on-campus and online degree options.
At the bachelor’s level, you can expect to take classes for your social work major that include titles such as:
- Public Policy and Advocacy
- Foundations of Social Work
- Case Management
- 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. A MSW typically takes two years to complete, and the curriculum combines theory with practical skills. Typical classes for an MSW 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, and 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 maintains an up-to-date list of the 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 curriculum and experiential learning the 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.
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.
Healthcare social workers may be employer anywhere that patients receive medical treatment ands support services. These include:
- public health organizations
- rehabilitation centers
- mental health organizations
- hospice care facilities
- outpatient clinics
- substance abuse treatment centers
- patient’s homes
Most medical social workers are employed in hospitals. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the following institutions are the main employers of healthcare social workers:
- 45,0000 work in General Medical and Surgical Hospitals
- 22,3400 work in Individual and Family Services
- 21,5901 work in Home Health Care Services
- 14,4500 work in Nursing Care Facilities
- 11,690 work in Outpatient Care Centers11,690
As a healthcare social worker, your job duties will vary according to where you work. Medical social workers who work in hospitals will be deeply involved in helping patients adjust to changes in their health, such as a new physical impairment, navigating the medical system, and planning supports for their eventual discharge. Medical social workers in hospice care facilities will likely 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 support.
What is the Job Market for Medical Social Work?
Job markets may be unpredictable, but healthcare will always be a basic human need. As conditions like heart disease, substance use disorder, and diabetes become more prevalent, and as the number of senior citizens rapidly grows, healthcare workers will be needed in greater numbers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for medical social workers will rise by 20% between 2018-2028. That’s four times the national average across all professions.
Sadly, the majority of human service jobs are known for paying low salaries. But medical social workers earned an average salary of $58,470 as of 2018, 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. Healthcare social workers employer in hospitals take home the biggest paychecks, earning $64,910 on average. Salary can vary by state as well; Nevada, California, Washington DC, Connecticut, and Oregon have the largest average salaries for medical social work, though 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. On the other side of the healthcare social worker’s duties are medical administration duties, which can add the stress of bureaucracy, paperwork, and ever-changing regulations.
Another drawback of this position is the pay. A salary of about $60,000 is a comfortable income, and 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 was $78,000 in 2015, according to a study conducted by Georgetown University researchers. Earning a social work degree is also a long process, as is earning and maintaining licensure.
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.
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.
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