The role of social workers within healthcare teams

Social workers serve in a wide range of roles. They are often employed by federal, state and local government agencies and work in a range of settings, from schools to correctional facilities. They also often play an important role within healthcare teams. A healthcare social worker, also sometimes known as a medical social worker, generally works within a healthcare setting such as a hospital, specialist clinic, mental health facility, hospice or nursing home. They can also work in private practice facilities and are sometimes employed by related agencies or organizations, such as schools, child welfare service providers or human service agencies.

What does a healthcare social worker do?

Like any social worker, a healthcare social worker helps people deal with a wide range of personal and social issues that impact their lives. They work within a team of healthcare professionals to offer a holistic service to patients dealing with physical and mental health issues and the many complications these may present to both the patient and their loved ones. A major part of their work involves supporting patients and their families as they navigate the healthcare system, make decisions and deal with the stress that comes with a major illness, injury or disability.

Social workers also help patients leaving hospital with the practical arrangements they may need to put in place, such as home care, meal delivery and continuing their treatment and recovery plan at home, often involving the use of special equipment or ongoing rehabilitation activities. Social workers can help with sourcing and arranging those services and accessing financial assistance if needed. They can also help with rehabilitation after injury or severe illness and help patients address social needs such as finding suitable housing, applying for legal aid or finding suitable job or education services, given the state of their current health and any limitations this may place on them.

Whereas most members of the healthcare team will be primarily concerned with a patient’s physical needs, the social worker’s role is generally broader. They will be providing psychological and emotional support, including counselling patients as they recover from illness or injury and adjust to the impact this may have on them. The social worker will help the patient adapt to any changes to their daily lives that they need to make. They can also be involved in advocating for patients and helping them find other resources that allows them to manage their condition or live with their chronic illness or disability.

Healthcare social workers may also have to deal with some difficult and sensitive issues. In the case of injured children, for example, part of their job may be to investigate suspected abuse or neglect and take further action if needed. They may also find themselves in the position of helping parents whose children are very sick or badly injured, and they may also need to support grieving families in times of bereavement.

What education do healthcare social workers need?

The minimum education that is required for this type of role is a Bachelor’s in Social Work (BSW). Most jobs will want you to hold a Master’s in Social Work (MSW) as well as a state licensure. Many healthcare social workers are licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) who hold a master’s degree. Some entry level positions for graduates with a BSW may be available, complete with on-the-job training and ongoing professional development, but the majority of employers will be looking for applicants with previous experience either as a healthcare social worker or as a social worker in another relevant setting.

Those with a BSW may find that a good next step is to study for an Advanced MSW online with a provider such as Florida State University, which offers a program that allows you to gain your master’s while working in a social work setting to gain experience. This will allow you to earn a decent salary, gain the relevant experience that employers are looking for and earn an advanced degree, all at the same time. Many people find this a far better option than studying full-time, and a wholly online master’s program allows the flexibility of fitting study around work and other commitments.

Social workers with a more advanced degree such as a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) or a PhD in social work may find even more positions and a higher salary available to them. However, many social workers who hold a MSW and build a portfolio of relevant experience will find that some of the best and highest paid positions, including leadership positions, are also open to them.

In terms of the qualities needed to be a healthcare social worker, you will need to have a great deal of emotional strength and resilience, patience and empathy, as well as strong critical thinking and decision-making skills. Communication skills are also essential for both dealing with clients and working collaboratively as part of a diverse team of other healthcare professionals, in order to ascertain and reach the best outcomes for the patients and their families.

Are job prospects good for healthcare social workers?

Social workers are in demand in most areas, and in most sectors, throughout the US and abroad. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that overall employment of social workers is projected to grow 9% from 2021 to 2031, which is faster than the average for all occupations, and would result in the creation of more than 64,000 new job openings per year when accounting for both job growth and the rate at which social workers are currently retiring, transferring to new occupations or otherwise leaving the labor force.

While this growth is predicted for social workers in general, it is expected that healthcare social workers will experience similar job market conditions to the rest of the industry, as healthcare continues to be a sector experiencing job growth and staff shortages in many different roles. Some states have a higher demand for healthcare social workers than others, often based at least partially on the density of the population and state demographics. Florida, California, New York and Texas are among the states that employ the most healthcare social workers (with over 20,000 employed in some states), while states such as Alaska, Montana and Wyoming have fewer than 660 healthcare social workers per state in employment.

Keep in mind that most social workers require state licensure to work in the field, and while some states will happily recognize a license issued in another state, it is vital to check if you are moving out of state and wish to remain in practice. There are a variety of different licenses issued including:

  • Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW)
  • Certified Social Worker (CSW)
  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
  • Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)
  • Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW)
  • Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
  • Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP)
  • Clinical Social Work Associate (CSWA)
  • Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW)
  • Licensed Advanced Social Worker (LASW)

All states require at least a BSW, and you will often need a master’s degree to become a licensed social worker. In addition, you will generally have to pass a further exam to obtain licensure. A LBSW or CSW may be issued in some states to those with just a BSW, but social workers will commonly find they are encouraged to pursue an MSW as it will provide more options to them as an individual and therefore to the organization that employs them. A master’s degree often open doors to advanced social work licensure, allowing workers to obtain LMSW, LCSW, LGSW and LICSW licenses. In short, while job prospects are reasonable across the US, you should carefully check the requirements of your new state if you are considering relocating or are offered a new job in a different state from the one you are currently licensed in.

It should be noted that there are a lot of different opportunities for social workers to work in a range of settings, so it is unlikely that someone trained and qualified in the sector would be unable to find work in the field in some capacity. Social work qualifications do not tend to have a heavy specialism, so it is possible for healthcare social workers to transfer to social work positions in other sectors and agencies. It should also be noted that it is sometimes possible for someone with a bachelor’s degree in another discipline to obtain a MSW, so that is something to consider for career changers.

Ultimately, if you feel that a career in healthcare is right for you, becoming a healthcare social worker is probably well worth considering. It is a challenging but rewarding career, and the job prospects in the sector in the coming years are certainly looking promising. For those with the right qualities and character traits who are willing to work hard to obtain the qualifications needed, serving as a social worker within a healthcare team can be a highly rewarding and satisfying career, with a varied job scope and lots of opportunities for advancement.

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