What Do Medical Social Workers Do?

  • Practice

Patients and their families rely on medical social workers to help them navigate life’s most challenging moments.

Though often not given the attention they’re due, medical social workers serve an exceptionally critical function in hospitals and long-term care facilities. Leveraging classroom skills and on-the-job training, medical social workers navigate the U.S. health care system’s thorny political, social and bureaucratic challenges to help patients and their families achieve optimal outcomes.

Renee Michelsen, clinical associate professor and regional field education coordinator for the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work’s Virtual Academic Center, has spent the majority of her career outside of academia. Initially drawn to medical social work during her undergraduate field placement, she has spent 25 years leading programs that provide critical services to hospice patients and the elderly.

While MSW grads choosing to pursue careers in hospitals, clinics and long-term care settings face a unique set of challenges, the field also offers a unique opportunity to positively impact patients’ lives. Here, Michelsen offers MSW graduates an insider’s perspective on the particular challenges and rewards of working in the field of medical social work.

A Day in the Life of a Medical Social Worker

Medical social workers can be found across the health care system, from hospital pediatric wings to nursing homes. While the work varies greatly depending on the setting, anyone entering the field can expect to gain hands-on experience with patients and critical insight into the biological, psychological and social impact of the conditions that affect them.

In the hospital setting, discharge planning is often the primary task assigned to social workers — a task for which their clinical skills prove critical, as they work one-on-one with patients and their families to plan for life after their hospital stay.

“You have to be able to help patients determine their next steps in just one or two meetings,” says Michelsen. Since these patients often suffer from communication difficulties, social workers are frequently called on to fill in the gaps with their knowledge of the health care and legal systems.

Applying Clinical Skills in Difficult Situations

Due to the nature of their work, medical social workers interact with patients in some of their most vulnerable moments. “You tend to see patients and their families when they’re unprepared, in those moments when they’re most in need of help,” Michelsen says.

But she considers this the greatest opportunity the job affords: the privilege of assisting patients as they navigate through difficult decisions, and the potential to positively impact their lives. Social workers are uniquely equipped to handle this challenge, bringing their crisis management skills and intimate knowledge of the American health care system (and the insurance industry) to the table. No other health care professionals specialize in this kind of holistic, systems-based approach. “That’s all unique to social work,” Michelsen says.

Getting Started in the Field

While many jobs within medical social work must be filled by a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), Michelsen says this shouldn’t deter recent MSW graduates from considering the field. There are many medical social work settings that don’t require a clinical license, among them assisted living facilities, rehabilitation facilities and nursing homes. What’s more, starting your career in medical social work or long-term care can provide many important transferable skills, such as how to write and interpret a medical chart, how to communicate effectively with doctors and nurses, and how to speak with patients’ families.

As with any career, medical social work comes with its own challenges. For example, medical social work is often viewed as a “non-essential” service in health care settings, and as such, may be the target of budget cuts within resource-strapped hospitals. “Finding a place in the hospital system can be really hard,” Michelsen says. “Medical social workers must continuously prove the value of what they do.”

Despite these challenges, she stresses that the work is rewarding and well worth the effort. “Medical social workers are afforded an unusual and amazing opportunity to impact patients’ lives that you can’t get anywhere else,” she says.

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