What is medical social work?

Medical social work is a branch for social work that deals with patients and family members in need of psychosocial assistance and guides them towards the help they need. They often work alongside doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, speech therapists, and other health-care professionals as a collaborative team in different health-related fields such as inpatient medical care, mental health, end-of-life care, etc. Medical social workers aim to help the patient and their family restore normalcy and balance in their lives and allows them to regain their maximum strength in order to reintegrate into society. These interventions include assessing the patient’s needs and directing them to the necessary resources and professionals as well as providing counseling, physical therapy, or education. 

Duties of a medical social worker

Medical social workers mainly work with patients re-entering society from a long term care center and provide support by offering psychosocial and grief counseling, education, and referrals to other health professionals. Medical social work also involves resolving issues regarding terminal illnesses, physical disabilities, end of life decisions, financial instabilities, medication adherence, or suicidal tendencies. The duties of a medical social worker may vary depending on their place of work or any specialized training, but the key responsibilities of any medical social worker as follows:

  • Assessing the mental and emotional stability of the patient and offering referrals if necessary.
  • Understanding the social and financial condition of the patient along with their family and home environment.
  • Relaying the relevant information to the professionals overlooking the patient’s health-care.
  • Advocate on behalf of the patient to make sure that their voice and needs are heard.
  • Offer counseling or psychotherapy, if needed, to the patients and family members.
  • Maintain a record of the patient’s confidential information.
  • Guiding patients to relevant medical and non-medical professionals and resources.
  • Coordinate and collaborate with health-care workers to provide optimal health-care services to the patient.
  • Educate patients regarding their situation, community resources, and health insurance services.
  • Ensure before discharge that the patient’s health needs can be fulfilled at home and proper medication, equipment, etc can be provided for.

Types of medical social workers

Medical social workers can work in a variety of medical settings including tertiary care hospitals, medical centers, specialized health clinics, etc. They can be divided into two types based on the requirements of the patients:

  • Inpatient Medical Social Workers

Inpatient medical social workers deal with patients who are hospitalized for acute or chronic health conditions and they usually work alongside other health-care professionals in hospitals or other health-care centers. Inpatient medical social workers can choose to specialize in a single health field such as geriatrics, pediatrics, psychiatric, or intensive care department. They can also expand their services and work in various health-care departments in a hospital. Their principal goal is to assist patients and concerned family members during their admission and hospital stay, creating a care plan for the patients, and working with insurance companies to take care of treatment costs. They are also responsible for training other health-care staff to assess and better care for the patient’s needs.

  • Outpatient Medical Social Workers

On the other hand, outpatient medical social workers deal with patients who need guidance in navigating the health-care system but their condition is not severe enough to require hospitalization. They also work with patients who are in the middle of shifting from in-patient care to outpatient or home care. Such patients often require assistance in resource navigation, counseling, and arranging physiotherapy sessions or medication. The aim of outpatient social workers is to make sure that patients continue to receive optimal care and support even after discharge from the hospital.

Some medical social workers may be responsible for both inpatient and outpatient care.

  • Medical Social Workers in Specialized Clinics

Medical social workers can also choose to work in specialized clinics and departments that deal with patients with a particular illness or condition such as diabetes or dialysis clinics. Such clinics mainly operate only on an outpatient basis.

  • Public Health Educators and Advocates

Medical social workers may opt to work as public health educators and advocates. Advocacy in health education is essential to overcome health barriers especially for those with poor financial and social conditions. Public health educators mainly deal with preventative and also provide information, resources, and guidance to patients with chronic illnesses. 

Importance of medical social work

Medical social workers create an efficient system that accurately assesses the needs of the patient and then offers services that fulfill those needs. This data-based service provision also expands access to healthcare to those in poor financial conditions. Such individuals when faced with chronic conditions or critical illnesses are unable to pay for the long term treatments and face countless other barriers such as mental illnesses, addictions, and housing instability. A good medical social worker not only addresses these problems but also tries to reduce any unnecessary expenses in treatment and diagnostics. A medical social worker has an immense impact on the health-care experience of patients and family members as well as on society at large.

  • Impact on patients

Medical social work can have an incredible effect on the health-care experience of a patient. Undergoing medical treatment, especially for chronic illness, can be a difficult process therefore proper assessment, counseling and education goes a long way to make the patient feel at ease during their medical treatment.

  • Impact on family members

Navigating the health-care system can be almost as hard on the family members as the patient themself. Educating the family member on the treatment procedure, offering counsel, and assisting them through the payment process can make this process a lot easier. Medical social workers are also responsible for efficiently relaying the needs of the patient and family members to the medical and non-medical professionals and act as a communication bridge between them.

  • Impact on society

Medical social work has a considerable effect on the community at large by affecting the health-care systems of that society. Early detection and prevention of child abuse, increased awareness of mental health issues, Reduction in time of hospital stay, and overall better health-care for all members of the community regardless of the gender, age or social status are among the many benefits of medical social work.

Dr. Anique Ali



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