I worked in child welfare for 17 years after I first earned my BSW. I was an expert in everything child welfare. I finally decided I wanted to try a new path. (Which is one of the awesome aspects of social work–there are always different paths to choose!) I accepted a job as a dialysis social worker and I had no idea what being a medical social worker entailed. At all. I started working for an independent dialysis center and I was the only social worker there so no one to train me. I asked my supervisor –not a social worker – for training for my job, she said – “Do social work things.” Not the most helpful advice andI really had no idea my responsibilities were and the positive impact I could have as a medical social worker. I learned on the job, picked up a few things and now have years of experience in the medical field.
Most medical professionals focus on an individual’s physical needs. They are amazing and vital to the overall team but Social Workers have their place also! A medical social worker is on the frontlines at hospitals, clinics, dialysis and cancer centers and even health insurance companies. A medical social worker’s job is generally to help a member meet their medical, emotional and financial needs. As a medical social worker, the population you work with can be absolutely anyone. You may work with individuals of all ages of the life cycle. You will work with people at all income and health levels. You will work with people with dual diagnoses, substance abuse concerns, mental health issues, chronic illness and even homelessness. Sometimes you will even be educating the other professionals on the resources and needs of patients.
In the medical arena, you may help a client understand what the doctor or nurse has told them about their illness and reiterate the expectations of care. I often would explain how dialysis works to patients new to the process. They usually were fully explained before – but it is easy to get lost in the medical terms and difficult to fully process all the new information. A social worker might help a patient review their treatment options and set goals.
A client may need rehab or to go to a nursing home before returning to their own house. There may be a need for a referral for physical therapy or home health services. Individuals may require Medical Equipment like a wheelchair or a rollator walker or a nebulizer or wound care supplies. Generally, a social worker is aware of all the resources and arranges these services and supplies.
A social worker assists with the emotional and psychosocial needs of clients. The social worker may assist with someone grieving from a loss or be there for them as they process a new diagnosis. A social worker may assist someone who is in need of substance abuse help obtain the help they want. A social worker may refer a homeless person to a homeless shelter or case management services. An important role is to ensure individuals are aware of their rights and choices. A patient might require end of life/hospice care or need assistance with a Do Not Resuscitate or Power of Attorney for Health Care paperwork. A social worker also works with the families of individuals (with the patient’s permission of course!) This may include all the same emotional support or help with making decisions. Sometimes – as I have found in my current job – it is advocating for the client, reminding the family that the client can make decisions for themselves even if the family disagrees. There are a lot of complex relationships a social worker gets to assist with navigating. It is likely the social worker is also used for crisis intervention and de-escalation. When I worked in dialysis I was often the one brought in to give bad news!
It is probably obvious, but one of the most important ways a social worker helps is in the area of finances. There are so many options for paying for services and even regular insurance is not clear cut. Learning about and being able to explain the nuances of Medicare and Medicaid is vital. I would tell you I’m pretty knowledgeable about the subject but I still learn things after years of working with it – imagine how overwhelming it can be for patients. A social worker will help a client figure out how they are going to finance their medication, their equipment or other services they may need.
I also want to make a small note about social workers for insurance companies. I know my colleauges often talk about insurance companies as the dark side and at one time I wholeheartedly agreed. However, I have had the opportunity to work within an insurance company and there are lots of opportunities for social workers. My experience, with managed care social workers, is that they work hard at helping individuals live a quality life. I have heard of situations where a social worker’s dedication help save a prematurely babies life and have seen countless people engage in wellness activities and social workers going above and beyond to make sure a client’s medical and psycho-social needs are met. I have been able to supervise a team that has helped hundreds of individuals transition from nursing homes they didn’t need to be living in to living independently in the community. It has been absolutely amazing being there to see these journies.
If you want to be a medical social worker there are many varied opportunities to pursue. You will minimally require a Bachelor’s degree to be a case manager but many entities are looking for and often require MSWs and sometimes licensure. NASW states that as of September 30, 2016, the median annual Medical Social Worker salary is $58,775 with the range being up to $64,000 and depending on where you live and who employs you there is always the possibility for higher salaries.
People will always be complex and have physical issues requiring care As a medical social worker you are able to make a positive difference in many lives.