What a medical social worker does

Medical social workers provide assistance and counseling in medical, health and acute care settings. They work in a variety of positions and may have titles such as mental health counselor, family therapist, case manager, outpatient health counselor, clinical program coordinator, and community coordinator. Medical social workers are employed in facilities such as hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, veteran’s centers, hospice, rehabilitative centers and otter private and public health care facilities.

Because of the unique skills they bring to the work they do, medical social workers are in high-demand. They’re considered valued members of an interdisciplinary team consisting of doctors, nurses, administrative staff, and physical and occupational therapists. They not only collaborate with these medical professionals in arriving at treatment plans and making interventions, they often lead.

A particular focus of many medical social workers is preparing patients for home life and stabilizing their reentry. This involves providing supports to both the patient and family with discharge planning, counseling, home care and referrals to resources. In fact, resource navigation of benefits, housing and ongoing care is a primary function of the medical social worker in a hospital setting.

Not all medical social workers are involved in direct or clinical care. There are many opportunities for medical social workers in community outreach, program management and administration.

Some of the more common medical, mental and social issues medical social workers help with are:

  • Catastrophic Disability
  • Coping with Injury or Illness
  • Homelessness
  • Independent living resources (discharge planning – preparing patients for home life, home nursing care),
  • Medication adherence and management
  • Suicidality
  • Geriatric Care
  • Emergency Room Support
  • Resource navigation (financial, community support, Medicaid, public assistance)
  • Grief and Loss
  • Psychiatric Issues
  • Ongoing Medical and Mental Illness/Need for Counseling

Medical social worker specializations

Some social workers specialize around a particular medical issue or disorder. For example, they may provide counseling in in-house hospital clinics for psychiatric, substance abuse or eating disorders. Medical Social workers are also uniquely positioned to specialize in palliative and hospice care helping patients face terminal illness and end of life decisions.

Other areas where medical workers are highly specialized in a health care setting include: transplant departments, emergency and trauma, and neonatal care.

Becoming a Medical Social Worker – Obtaining the Right Credentials

Because hospitals (and many health care facilities) operate under strict regulatory governance, social workers in these settings typically hold a Masters of Social Work (MSW) degree and must be licensed to be employed. The credentials of a licensed MSW demonstrate the highest degree of professional training and education. In a medical setting, these qualifications are the standard.

There are approximately 270 graduate level social work programs accredited by the Council for Social Work Education (CSWE). Accreditation is important, because it paves the path for becoming a licensed social worker. Click here to learn more about CSWE programs. If you want to work as a medical social worker, it is likely you will need to obtain your masters from a CSWE program. Only those graduates who earn the masters from accredited schools meet the rigid requirements for licensure.

Licensed MSWs are also third-party reimbursable (insurance providers reimburse a patient or hospital for care provided). Depending on the medical or mental health setting, or the nature of the work performed, this may also be a requirement.

Medical social work education and training

The academic discipline of medical social work, also known as “clinical and health care social work” or “medical social work”, is primarily oriented around patient care. You will find that many MSW programs offer a specific concentration in medical social work. This path of study will allow you to develop the skills necessary to perform in a medical or health care setting.

However, you need not to be limited to only those MSW schools with a focus or track in medical social work.

As a masters student you will be required to complete two back-to-back fieldwork practicums averaging a total of 900 – 1200 hours. If you desire to become a medical social worker, you can pursue a more generalized course of study in social work practice. You might then use your fieldwork placements to secure positions in medical or health care settings and seek out this specialized training. Fieldwork assignments in hospitals are common placements in social work school.

Whether you pursue a concentration in medical social work as a student, or develop your skills in the field during your student training, medical social workers will always be in high demand. Importantly, the work they do makes a tremendous difference in the lives of those they help.

Nedda Gilbert

Ms. Gilbert is a certified social worker and 30 year educational consultant with an interest in helping college-bound and graduate school students manage the process and stress of admissions effectively. She is one of the senior founding managers of the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company, and the author of The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and another book, Business School Essays that Made a Difference (Random House). She is a guest contributor to Forbes Magazine on college and college life. Ms. Gilbert is also certified as a collaborative family law professional in New Jersey. She received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and MS from Columbia University.