What Are Medical Social Workers?
Medical social workers specialize in public health, geriatric, palliative, and inpatient medical or mental health care. They work in hospitals or other specialized medical settings like nursing homes, rehabilitative care centers, or related home-care services (i.e. hospice).
Some medical social workers are very specialized (i.e. a social worker that serves only patients awaiting transplants or babies receiving neonatal care) while others may serve a larger variety of clients with ongoing medical issues. Medical social workers often collaborate with other medical professionals such as doctors, nurses, discharge coordinators, administrative staff and physical therapists as part of an interdisciplinary team.
They are primarily involved in preparing patients for life after leaving a residential setting and providing support to clients and family members in the forms of discharge planning, psychosocial counseling, grief counseling, case management, and referrals. Certain issues addressed by medical social workers include terminal illness, catastrophic disability, end of life decisions, homelessness, independent living resources, medication adherence and management, or suicidality.
How Do I Know If Medical Social Work Is Right For Me?
Do you enjoy working with a variety of helping professionals? You might enjoy the variety of colleagues you would experience in medical social work.
Are you squeamish in medically graphic situations? If the sight of an IV needle or a bedpan sends you running for the hills, your discomfort in these situations may impact your ability to build rapport with these clients and their families.
How assertive are you? You must make tough decisions with confidence in your ethics, but sometimes in conflict with patient or family wishes, especially when recommending a patient is ready for discharge.
How are your organizational and time management skills? Medical social workers are extremely busy. If your strengths include remaining calm during biomedical or psychiatric crisis situations, grief and loss counseling, or working with older adults, you might find that medical social work is exactly where you belong.
What is the Financial Outlook for a Medical Social Worker?
At present, medical and public health social workers comprise approximately 24% of Americans employed in the social work field. As this subfield evolves, medical social workers will likely increase in demand. In particular, there will be more demand for medical social workers who specialize in geriatrics as Americans continue to live longer. If mental health parity continues to trend, we can expect to see more hospitals hiring psychiatric social workers.
In terms of compensation, medical social workers are presently in the middle of the pack, with an average national salary of $49,830/year. However, as your years of experience increase, you can expect a significant jump in salary, particularly if you take on a supervisory role. Medical social workers with twenty or more years of experience in the field may make over $100,000 annually.
What Are the Requirements?
Nearly all medical social work careers require a Master’s in Social Work with a clinical focus. It is rare for someone with a Bachelor’s in Social Work to be eligible for a medical social worker position, although some positions exist under the supervision of a MSW. This is not only due to the clinical knowledge needed for the role, but also because insurance companies may require masters-level professionals for billing purposes.
Licensure requirements vary depending on the specific job as well as your state. For example, a home care social worker in Florida requires a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) credential in addition to your degree, while a public health education social worker at an HIV outreach clinic in North Carolina only requires the MSW.
Continuing education plays a significant role in the lives of medical social workers, as they must stay keep up-to-date with the constantly evolving research found in a medical setting.
Because there is such a diverse array of medical social work careers that are often very specialized, let’s take a look at one specific example: an inpatient social worker in a mental health program for involuntarily committed patients.
A Day in the Life of an Inpatient Psychiatric Social Worker
- Your day starts with a debriefing through which you will be updated on which patients arrived, which patients left, who is considered at highest risk, and what crises arose while you were away. Then you’ll need to assess each new patient. Some assessments take place over several meetings because patients who are involuntarily committed may not be the most forthcoming.
- When visiting hours start, the new patients’ families may corner you to find out when they can go home. Helping family members understand the patient’s current status is a huge part of the job.
- Next, you might attend a “Treatment Team,” a term for staff meetings between the psychiatrist, nurse, discharge planner, and other members of your team. You would likely compare notes with the rest of the team, who have all answered New Patient A’s “Can I go home yet?” questions this morning.
- Throughout the day you might conduct group sessions where you would help patients understand why they are in treatment and form supportive connections during their stay. Individual counseling is a huge part of helping patients prepare for life after discharge. This also includes crisis intervention, as clients struggle to accept their placement or diagnoses and may express suicidal thoughts.
- Case management paperwork will take up much of your free time throughout the day. You would work with the family, the discharge planner, and the family’s insurance carrier to connect the patient and caregivers with post-residential resources. Documentation is a major responsibility and your day would conclude with going over paperwork to ensure all information is accurate for the social worker taking over the next shift.