Healthcare Social Work Guide - 2022

Last Reviewed: June 16th, 2022

Few career choices are as fulfilling and meaningful as a social worker’s. They have many different specialty areas to pursue when deciding which road they want to steer their careers toward. One arena where social workers have a huge impact is in the medical field. For decades, healthcare social workers have been heroes for those in hospitals and other medical facilities, ensuring they are treated with the respect and dignity all patients deserve. When a patient doesn’t know how to or cannot advocate for themselves, a healthcare social worker is there to save the day on their behalf.

Why do we have healthcare social workers?

The job of a healthcare social worker is held in high esteem because they operate at a high level of efficiency and care. That is why every state requires you to obtain a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree and pass licensing exams before you can begin practicing. Assisting individuals and their loved ones with the psychosocial support required to manage a chronic, acute, or terminal illness is a heavy task for anyone to accept. That person must possess the ability to actively listen, understand natural human reactions, identify educational and developmental needs, and creatively problem-solve, just to name a few capabilities.

Healthcare social workers help clients create long-term goals, develop strategies, and recommend specific actions to ensure they reach these objectives. They often instruct training programs and offer their mentorship as part of a resourceful network of social workers. You can find those in the healthcare field collaborating with doctors, specialists, nurses, and other medical professionals on the patient’s treatment options and plans for recovery. They will then consult with the families and caregivers to confirm the client has the resources they need to heal post-discharge and conduct regular follow-up visits.

But, before they can do any of those things, they must assess the patient’s social, financial, and emotional needs. It takes years to hone and master the skills needed to make such assessments about another person’s life. A healthcare social worker is allowed a lot of autonomy when it comes to making decisions that will greatly impact the life of another, so it’s imperative that they are always ethical in their dealings. 

So now that you understand the importance of a healthcare social worker’s role in our society, we’ll cover the specifics of their duties in the next section. 

What do healthcare social workers do?

When it comes to fighting for policies to reduce the existing inequalities vulnerable populations face when seeking healthcare, a social worker’s role is vital. Each duty they perform is essential to give their client a fair shot at success, so let’s examine them one by one. 

Psychosocial Assessment & Diagnosis/Planning/Intervention

Psychosocial assessments are a tool used by social workers to summarize the problems a client is experiencing. These are the issues that the social worker is looking to resolve by taking into account the impact the illness is having on the patient, psychological test results, legal status, the description of the issue, assets and resources the client has access to, the expected outcome, and the strategy being implemented to solve the issue.

The information contained in the psychosocial assessment should allow your colleagues to assist in case planning and making referrals. There are three parts to a psychosocial assessment, and the first is gathering basic information. The client’s name, address, racial background, living arrangements, and other identifying information are collected. The agency or person that referred the client and the kind of assistance they need is also part of basic information gathering. 

The next step is to describe the problem the client is seeking help to resolve. The social worker conducts interviews with family members and others who play a significant role in the client’s life to obtain any information that will be relevant to reaching a diagnosis so an effective treatment plan is developed. 

Financial Assessment/Planning/Intervention

A client will need a financial plan to afford continuous care, whether an illness is physical or psychological. An assessment combines social work’s financial and psychosocial components to help the client deal with the emotional and financial distress that accompanies the illness. 

Healthcare social workers will sit with clients to create budgets and help them manage their benefits to place themselves in good financial standing. They assist clients struggling with the psychosocial aspect of financial management. While social workers are not permitted to give financial advice or investment tips, they can counsel clients about making decisions to ensure their expenses are covered. They can also refer the client to financial services and resources that enable them to make sound financial decisions.

A social worker’s job is to create a supportive environment and listen to understand the client’s past and present financial experiences before providing a solution. The end goal is to empower the client by helping them understand their financial values and the impact their decisions have had on their life, so they are wiser with their money in the future.

Case Facilitation

This is the process social workers use to assess a client and their family’s needs. The social worker manages the case plans, pursues, advocates, and monitors the services provided by other social services or health care groups. That way, they can coordinate and collaborate to help the client find the assistance they need. 

Case facilitation aims to provide quality services to those with complex, multi-faceted needs using the most efficient and effective approaches. Optimizing the client’s functionality is the main objective, and that’s done through problem-solving, connecting them to resources and opportunities, and intervening at the system level. Social workers have to be aware of how an organization’s policies, setup, budget, and service network impact the client. Whatever help the system needs to support and enhance the client’s life is the social worker’s responsibility to provide. 

Patient and Family Counseling

Healthcare social workers provide patient and family counseling services when an illness has been diagnosed. Clients need help accepting the illness and coping with the new stress added to their lives. Planning for their future while dealing with heightened levels of anxiety brought on by the uncertainty of what’s to come is a huge challenge for clients. 

Professional counselors focus on specific problems an individual or family is going through, while a social worker’s counseling centers on helping to locate a wide range of resources within the social service system. They give patients referrals to programs that offer specialized treatment for their illnesses.

Clients’ families will also require counseling as they look for resources or support groups to help them cope with the life changes their loved one’s illness brings. They have new roles to accept, which can be difficult as they may feel hindered from pursuing personal goals. Families also need assistance when a patient expires, and final arrangements must be made. The social worker is there with a list of resources in the community should the family need financial help and access to a therapist to get through the rough period.

Crisis Intervention

Situations that disrupt the regular daily functions of a household that require skills beyond the family members’ scope to solve are regarded as crisis matters. When someone learns they have a debilitating or fatal disease, they understandably find coping with that news heartbreaking. 

They may even begin to think about harming themselves and others. These thoughts aren’t unnatural, and social workers have the information and resources clients need to develop healthier coping mechanisms. Social workers arrange for the client’s care post-discharge and physical and mental therapy they need to work through their stressors. 

Healthcare social workers are trained to identify situations that lead to a crisis so they can employ preventative measures as part of their intervention. That’s why an important part of their work is done with the client’s family to ensure the client has the social support required to see their treatment plan is a success. 

Quality Improvement

Healthcare social workers engage with the organizations that deliver services to clients. Their goal is to collaborate and share strategies to improve the quality and efficacy of the organization’s initiatives. Quality improvement is the process of discovering how well a service is performing by monitoring its activities and the outcome of those activities. It measures the impact, positive or negative, that the initiative has on the community. 

Social workers typically conduct patient satisfaction questionnaires during their follow-up appointments to find areas of improvement. These questions are geared to find out how the client perceives their quality of life since being referred to the agency or organization helping them. The social worker then uses that information to work closely with the organization on refining services for clients.

Resource Brokering/Referral/Development

As a healthcare social worker, you are also a resource broker who refers and connects clients with agencies and facilities that can help with their illness. Referrals to community-based services are a critical part of the client’s discharge process and vital to a successful transition. The client’s care team, which includes the social worker, is responsible for offering realistic support services, making sure the patient and caregivers are comfortable accessing the services, and that the patient and caregiver completely understand what services are available.

To link clients with agencies for assistance, you must keep a list of updated local resources and make them a standard part of the packet of information you give to patients and their family caregivers. You should also be aware of the eligibility requirements for each organization as they may be based on income, age, diagnosis, and other criteria. That way, you can be confident you are providing your client with useful information and not sending them on a wild goose chase.

Discharge Planning

For a patient to have their transition from the hospital to home go smoothly, the discharge planning must be adequate. Once the client knows when they’ll be discharged, preparations should be made by the social worker to ensure the patient can begin their recovery process with all the tools and resources available to them. 

Family members and other loved ones critical to the client’s recovery are informed of the patient’s condition and how it affects their relationship with their community. When family members understand the patient’s condition, it’s easier for them to find ways to relate to their situation. 

On the day of discharge, the patient and their family should know exactly what the procedures are and what post-discharge arrangements have been made. Everything from transportation to medical equipment and medications will be thoroughly planned, implemented, and executed. The social worker’s objective is to address the specific needs of each individual and ensure they have what they need at home for their care.

System Integration

This process brings multiple channels of the social work field together to offer a complete and comprehensive solution to the client. Different social service agencies work in conjunction to provide resources and open pathways for clients to receive needed services. 

System integration allows social workers to address the service gaps that typically take place for those with serious illnesses. Combining community and clinical services have seen a reduction in health care costs and disparities faced by vulnerable populations. The integration also gives the clinics the capacity they were lacking to provide onsite services and access to local resources.

Outcome/Practice Evaluation

At some point during your client interaction, you will have to measure the effectiveness of your intervention efforts. That is done by answering evaluation research questions to assess client behavioral changes, sustainability of gains made, negative consequences resulting from intervention, whether diversity awareness was part of the intervention, and overall client satisfaction. If some patients are benefiting from the methods used more than others, that should be noted as well.

The results of this research are known as the outcome or practice evaluation. Instead of gathering feedback about individuals or client systems, you focus on the effect the intervention has on multiple clients. The program, policies, cost-effectiveness, and process of implementation are all evaluated to ensure the clients are receiving the appropriate attention and care. If it’s determined they are not, tweaks are made to deliver more effective methods. 

Teamwork/Collaboration

Teamwork is an essential component of successfully resolving a client’s problem through community-based resources and providing appropriate post-discharge care. As a social worker, collaborating with agencies and maintaining those relationships is a large part of your responsibilities. Understanding how interpersonal relationships are formed and utilized and evaluating the pressures that exist in the client’s environment will directly influence your success rate.

You’ll need a problem-solving team that comprises individuals from different organizational divisions to engage the client. Then each team member comes together to discuss professional solutions. If you’re looking to solve a specific problem, you may want to form a specialty team made up of representatives from different agencies that offer much-needed services. The key is to understand the client’s needs and form an effective team of people to address each issue for a complete solution.

Patient/Family Education

Patients and their families will have a ton of questions about the condition, treatment options, aftercare facilities when the patient will be discharged, why changes to plans are being made, and more. Healthcare social workers have a duty to explain and educate the patient and their families.

When you meet your client, they are usually at a very vulnerable point in their lives and may not be in the right frame of mind to ask the questions they should. They’re likely anxious and worried about the next steps they need to take. That anxiety extends to family members who are confused and seeking out someone who can simplify the entire process. That person is the social worker. 

Educating a patient eases their mind, and well-informed patients have a higher success rate during recovery. Studies have shown that cancer patients have a better time managing pain and keeping a high level of self-esteem when they’re aware of their condition and treatment plan. 

Families are also able to make plans for provisions their loved ones will need once they’re released after being educated by the social worker. They’ll know their role in the client’s care and can make positive contributions to the recovery process.

Patient/Family Advocacy

Social work is all about advocating for your client. In the medical field, that means guiding the patient and their family as they attempt to navigate a system unfamiliar to them. Patient advocates bridge the communication gaps between patients and healthcare providers. The social worker is there to make sure the patient has all the information needed to make an informed decision about their care. 

In cases where the patient is incapacitated, the social worker will confer with family members and explain the situation. They will then work on the family’s behalf to ensure their requests, concerns, and questions are all addressed by the facility. If it’s an end-of-life matter, the social worker will provide the family with resources to support them during difficult times. 

Social workers are often mediators facilitating meetings between family members who don’t agree on treatment plans or courses of action for their relative. They also assist clients with insufficient medical insurance find options to help with medical bills. Social workers will deal with insurance companies, lawyers, and anyone else who plays a role in the client’s healthcare needs.

What are the typical educational requirements of healthcare social workers?

To call yourself a social worker, the minimum degree required is a bachelor’s degree in social work. The programs typically take four years to complete, and the areas of study are:

  • Human Behavior Theory
  • Psychology
  • Sociology
  • Case Management
  • Legal and Ethical Standards
  • Addiction
  • Children and Families

These courses are designed to provide students with the skills necessary to advocate for clients, respond to crises, and design treatment. However, they cannot engage in any unsupervised clinical social work.

To obtain social worker licensure, a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree is required, although some permit those with BSWs to gain an entry-level license. But, to practice clinical social work independently or start your own practice, an MSW is needed. 

MSW programs take about two years to complete, and the courses build upon the knowledge learned in the BSW program by focusing on specific areas of expertise. Some of the common areas studied are:

  • Racism
  • Epidemiology
  • Health Care Policy
  • Biostatistics for Public Health

The degrees must be earned from a Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredited college or university. Check with your state licensing board to discover their licensure requirements.