Social Work in Health Care

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Social Work in Health Care


Social work in health care helps people who are dealing with a medical problem to function within their situation. The social worker who specializes in health care works with clients and their families to provide services necessary to make their lives easier for the duration of the client's illness, and to help them deal with the consequences directly related to that illness.


According to the code of ethics of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), the profession of social work is dedicated to a set of core values. These values include social justice, service, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence, and they form the foundation of social work. Social workers in the medical field provide a wide variety of services to clients who are going through a short-term medical crisis, suffering from chronic illnesses, facing a life-threatening disease, or in need of long-term care or rehabilitation.

The main concern of the social worker is to assist the client and the client's family in coping with their health care situation. Clients are faced with many problems when they have an accident, contract a sudden and debilitating illness, or are diagnosed with a chronic or life-threatening disease. Social workers help them assess these problems, identify their immediate and long term needs, and find resources to supply the needs.

Within the health care setting, the social worker has many responsibilities. The services provided by the social worker depend on the needs of the client. The worker acts as an advocate to secure the client's rights, directly counsels the client and the client's family, and refers the client to other social agencies, community resources, or facilities that can meet the client's immediate and long-term needs. The services provided by the social worker always depend upon the client's needs and the health care setting.

If the social worker is working in a hospital, these duties may include setting up home health care services after the client's discharge, arranging for meals to be delivered to the client's home, and setting appointments for follow-up care. The worker may also make arrangements for transportation to doctor's appointments and community social service agencies, and for long-term care within another facility.

Work settings

Duties of the social worker vary with the health care setting. Medical social workers may work in a hospital, hospice, assisted living center, nursing home, physical rehabilitation center, clinic, home health care agency, or drug rehabilitation or mental health center. Social workers may work in the health care facility or make home visits to work with their clients. They often work with other agencies and have to travel short distances for meetings with the agency members. Social workers confer with other agency workers or with health care team members to assess client needs and to make plans for the client's care.

Hours of work vary for the social worker, depending upon the facility or agency within which he is employed. Usually the work hours are between 8 am and 5 pm Monday through Friday, but the worker may be required to work hours as needed for emergencies. In larger urban areas or rural areas, the social worker may also be required to work during evening hours and on weekends to better serve the clients.

Education and training

Education, training, and licensing requirements may vary from state to state, but the NASW states that the minimum educational requirement for social workers is a baccalaureate degree in social work (BSW). However, people who hold a bachelor's degree in another discipline such as psychology, sociology, or urban studies may also qualify for entrance level jobs.

BSW programs prepare students for direct care of clients. Students who choose to major in social work must complete courses in social work practice, social work policies, human behavior and social environment, research methods, social work values and ethics, study of populations at risk, and the promotion of social justice. They must also complete 400 hours of supervised field work.

An advanced degree is the standard for many positions in social work including positions within the field of health care. A master's degree in social work (MSW) allows the social worker to be certified for clinical and supervisory work.

Advanced education and training

A master's degree in social work qualifies the social worker to make clinical assessments, choose an area of specialization, manage large caseloads, and supervise social workers with lesser degrees. In addition to courses of specialization and assessment, the MSW candidate must complete 900 hours of supervised field work, or an internship.

Social workers may also acquire a Ph.D. or D. S. W. in social work. This is required if they want to teach in an accredited program at a university or to work in a supervisory position as the head of a social service program.

The National Association of Social Workers requires social workers to complete 90 hours of continuing education classes every three years to continue their certification in the profession. Licensed professionals with advanced degrees may be required to complete more than 90 hours of continuing education classes.

Future outlook

Social work is a growing profession. The occupational outlook is optimistic. The national Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that growth will continue at a rate exceeding that of other occupations until at least 2008. There are several reasons why the field of social work in health care continues to grow:

  • the aging population of "baby boomers"
  • advanced medical treatment
  • longer life expectancy
  • growth of home health care due to growing trend of early release of patients from hospitals
  • replacement of workers seeking career change
  • stress and burnout among social workers causing them to leave profession
  • increase in population of people living with AIDS


BSW— Baccalaureate degree in social work.

Long-term care— Placement of client in a facility that provides nursing and basic needs care when client is no longer able to provide that care at home.

MSW— Master's degree in social work.

NASW— National Association of Social Workers.

Needs assessment— Social worker conducts an interview with client and family, reviews charts, interviews other health workers to determine what specific services are required by client.

Urban studies— Course work in the sociology of urban areas.



Occupation Outlook Handbook, 2000–01 Ed. Washington, DC: Department of Labor, 2000.


National Association of Social Workers. 750 First Street NE, Suite 700, Washington, DC 20002-4241. 〈http//〉.