Those who want to pursue careers in social work have multiple options for areas in which to specialize. Although many choose to work for local government agencies, working in child protection, family services or clinical social work, providing counseling and support services in a therapeutic environment, medical or hospital social work is a growing specialty field.
When someone is diagnosed with a serious illness, or experiences a traumatic injury that changes their lifestyle, there are bound to be issues that arise. For example, when someone loses the ability to walk due to a car accident, not only do they face emotional issues, but they also need access to services that will help them adjust to their new lifestyle and perform basic activities. Although doctors will provide medical services to help the patient manage, addressing what happens after the hospital falls to the hospital social worker.
Medical social workers are employed by hospitals, long-term-care facilities and hospice and palliative care facilities. Patients and their families can request to meet with a social worker, or the medical staff may recommend an intervention if they suspect there may be some issues that the patient and family will have trouble dealing with. Social workers also serve as a communication conduit between the patient and the medical team. Many times, patients and their families feel intimidated by doctors, or forget to ask important questions when facing a crisis. The social worker bridges those communication gaps, helping ensure everyone is on the same page.
The social worker meets with the patient and family for an evaluation, assessing their emotional state and recommending therapies and resources that can help them cope. They might serve as grief counselors, for example, to the parents of children facing terminal disease, or as an advocate for a family seeking long-term care for an elderly relative.
Although many hospital social workers provide therapy services, some patients simply need the social worker’s assistance in accessing services to help them adjust; a patient leaving a rehabilitation center after treatment for a drug addiction may need help finding appropriate housing or a job, for instance. They might also provide education about treatment and payment options, or help families make difficult decisions about a loved one’s care.
Social workers also work with hospital staff to help them understand the emotional and psychological issues that come with illness or injury, and helping improve communication among hospital staff; in fact, many online master in nursing programs are now including courses or course components related to aspects of social work, helping social workers and medical staff work together more effectively. It is relatively easy to find information about online MSN programs on the Internet.
Entering the Field
Many people who enter the field of hospital social work have some experience in the medical environment, often in a direct patient-care setting. Nurses, for example, might earn a social work master’s degree online and transition into a social work role, using their knowledge of medicine and patient care to better serve patients; however, a medical background is not a requirement for entering the field. Most health care facilities require social workers to hold a Master of Social Work, and all states require social workers to have a license or certification. Clinical social workers — those who provide therapeutic services — must complete at least 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience and pass an exam in addition to earning an advanced degree in order to earn a license.
Job opportunities in the social work field are expected to grow over the next decade — and health care social work will grow even faster than average. Thanks to an aging population and a greater emphasis on helping patients get and stay healthy, the need for hospital social workers will grow exponentially, making this a viable career option.
Working in the hospital environment has its challenges, and as a social worker, you’ll need an exceptional degree of compassion, as well as excellent problem-solving, listening and communication skills; however, for those who value working in a team environment and working with people to help them have a positive health care experience, hospital social work may be an ideal fit.