Social Workers

While social work is a career sector in its own right, social workers operate in a variety of settings and are an essential part of many multidisciplinary organizations. The importance of social workers to society is underlined by the demand for their services in so many different contexts, from community programs and local government to schools, colleges, and rehabilitation facilities.

Social workers work with individuals and groups, often addressing issues that affect not only their immediate client but also their family and associates. Their role is to help their clients overcome specific obstacles in order to better integrate into society. The client can then take full advantage of the opportunities open to them while also contributing to society according to their abilities and position.

Contributing factors

The challenges faced by clients may be related to poverty, systemic oppression, prejudice, bullying or lack of access to essential services such as education. Often, however, social workers help people whose health issues are a major contributing factor to the challenges they face. These issues may range from physical disabilities to mental health problems or difficulties with substance abuse. As a result, there are many roles for social workers in healthcare environments.

Social workers in healthcare often have a master’s degree in social work (MSW) as this opens many doors to a more varied and fulfilling social work career. Healthcare roles are among the many jobs you can get with an MSW degree. An online master’s from the college of social work at Florida State University provides students with the skills and tools they need excel in providing support to a range of clients, as well as helping them to secure more advanced positions and command higher salaries. Through this course, students gain the expertise to help clients navigate healthcare in areas such as oncology, pediatrics and geriatrics.

Patient advocates

Hospitals, clinics, care homes and hospices all either employ social workers on their staff or have social workers that come in to work with patients and residents on a regular basis. In these settings, social workers commonly act as patient advocates, supporting patients in adjusting to dramatically changed circumstances and helping them to gain access to the services they need.

A social worker may negotiate with healthcare staff on a patient’s behalf in order to allay concerns and to make sure that the patient’s wishes are taken into consideration when treatment is decided upon. They may also be involved in supplying the patient with the facts they need to make an informed decision about their ongoing healthcare needs.

In many cases, the healthcare institution will provide this information, but the social worker is able to spend time with the patient to make sure that the facts are fully understood, discussing with them the options available and preparing them for the likely outcome.

Counseling and advice

A social worker may act as a counselor or therapist, providing emotional as well as practical support to patients facing serious or chronic illness, disability, life-changing injuries, or imminent end of life. Patients need help adjusting to the new realities of their situation, which may involve a dramatic change in the way they live their lives.

A social worker will provide patients with information regarding the various ways that they can manage their condition, the support they can access and how they can best adapt to their new circumstances. While a social worker must be clear and honest in explaining the limitations imposed by the patient’s condition, they aim to help them to live the best life they can, advising them on what is reasonable and what is not.

It is up to the patient or client to tell the social worker how they would like to proceed. The social worker will then offer practical assistance in achieving these aims, while also managing expectations. Taking the patient’s social setting, lifestyle, and individual requirements into account, they can formulate a personalized plan of action.

Different roles

A healthcare social worker may be employed as a program coordinator, a case manager, a bereavement or hospice carer, a therapist or a medical discharge planner, among other roles. In many cases, social workers will work with the patient’s family as well as the patients themselves, particularly when making arrangements for the patient to be cared for at home following discharge or when discussing end-of-life plans. Social workers can also be valuable in helping relatives to cope with bereavement.

While doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals provide essential medical treatment, there are many other issues that arise in a patient’s life when they are faced with serious injury or illness. These include managing their job and other responsibilities, which often include taking care of a family. Financial matters will need dealing with and may become more pressing if a hospital stay is unexpected and/or prolonged.

Social workers can help vulnerable and distressed patients navigate their health plans and insurance policies. In addition to the cost of treatment, rent or mortgage payments will still need to be made. Pets may need taking care of. The patient may have cultural or religious needs that are not automatically understood or met. Any issues around healthcare that don’t involve direct medical treatment may fall into the healthcare social worker’s remit.

Meeting patients’ needs

Traditionally, the social worker’s role is to represent the patient to medical staff and to make sure the latter are aware of the patient’s social condition, and how their treatment might require modification in light of this. Not everyone has access to the same resources after an operation or course of treatment. For example, some patients may not have a suitable environment in which to recover after they’ve been discharged. It’s the job of the social worker to make the relevant parties aware of this and to help the patient access the resources they need, such as referrals to support groups and services or provide help in applying for financial assistance.

In most situations, the first task a social worker will perform is an assessment of the patient’s needs and the resources available to them. This may involve going over their case history, talking to the doctors and nurses attending the patient, and discussions with the patent’s family or close carers.

The social worker will take a holistic approach, looking at the patient’s mental, emotional, social and cultural needs as well as their physical ailments. Based on this assessment, and on discussions with the patient to establish their goals and primary concerns, the social worker will create a personalized plan to help the patient achieve the best possible outcome following their treatment. This may involve coordinating with healthcare professionals, family members, employers, local government agencies and other support groups.

Providing information

Beyond this, a social worker’s role varies from patient to patient. They need to be capable of answering questions from patients and their families about the patient’s condition and how they will be affected. They will need to have accurate, up to date information from the doctors concerned to answer these enquiries effectively. For this reason, it’s best if healthcare social workers have some medical knowledge and are able to understand the issues around illness and injury and can translate these into layperson’s terms in a succinct and straightforward, but compassionate manner.

The range of questions that social workers will need to field will go beyond those on the patient’s health or the treatment they’re receiving. Social workers must be able to realistically discuss the long-term implications of any given condition in terms of the patient’s home life, role in society and essential needs moving forward.

Difficult conversations

These issues are outside the scope of what physicians can reasonably be expected to answer. Additionally, only social workers have the contextual knowledge to address such matters. Nevertheless, these conversations are frequently difficult as the social worker is put in the position of sometimes having to convey unpleasant truths to the patient and their family.

While social workers are always trying to help and to find positive solutions where possible, they must also be unflinchingly honest and assist the patients and their families in coming to terms with what has happened. Sometimes the response may be denial or even anger directed at the social worker for being the bearer of bad news. Usually though, the social worker’s role is greatly appreciated, even if it takes a while for their role to be understood.

Better outcomes

Patients and families prefer to be kept informed. Sometimes their fears when they don’t know what’s going on are worse than the reality. Knowing the truth enables them to be prepared. Studies suggest that when patients are better informed this contributes towards better outcomes in their treatment. Armed with accurate knowledge about their condition and the procedure being undertaken, as well as any relevant medication and the possible side effects, patients are able to manage pain better and are able to contribute more effectively towards their own recovery.

Social workers may also help patients to make informed choices between alternative treatment plans. If a patient doesn’t fully understand their situation, then they may refuse to comply with physician advice or make unwise decisions. The more a patient knows and understands, the more able they are to participate in their own treatment and recovery.

After discharge

Social workers are often involved in helping to prepare a patient for discharge. This may involve referring them to support groups and services, making home assessments and making arrangements for legal aid or financial assistance if needed. They may also help past patients find work or return to education.

A social worker’s relationship with a patient may continue after the patient leaves hospital. Follow-up care is especially important if the patient is suffering from a chronic condition that requires ongoing home-based treatment. The social worker might help their client to access physical therapy or other rehabilitation services. Medical social workers are invaluable in helping their clients to resume and manage their lives after hospital treatment.

Support groups

Social workers may provide counseling or therapy for groups as well as individuals. These support groups can help people to manage their own recovery or to live with ongoing conditions. Sharing their experiences in a group with others who are going through similar circumstances can provide essential emotional support and increase their determination to recover.

Patients who have issues around substance abuse, including alcohol, can particularly benefit from support groups. Substance abuse social work is a category in its own right, but also falls into the area of healthcare. The use of drugs and alcohol may be a primary cause of a patient’s health issues or one among several contributing factors.

If illegal drugs are involved, then a social worker might be involved in helping a patient to understand and face the legal consequences of their use. In such cases, a social worker may work alongside police, probation officers, the courts or other authorities, sometimes mediating between the patient and law enforcement officials.


Aside from dealing directly with patients or clients, social workers in healthcare, similar to social work in other settings, must manage a great deal of paperwork. Monitoring, recording and evaluating client progress is essential for legal as well as practical purposes. The social worker will have access to a patient’s medical records as well as insurance documents and other relevant papers.

The American Medical Association (AMA) outlines a list of patient rights. These include the right to courtesy, respect, dignity and attention to their needs, information about their treatment and the alternatives available, the right to make their own decisions about their care, the right to confidentiality and the right to a second opinion. They also have the right to obtain copies of their medical records, to be advised of any conflict of interest and the right to continuity of care and assistance when alternative care methods are needed.

Wrapping up

It’s the job of a social worker to ensure that patient rights are met. A healthcare social worker is a patient advocate, counselor, case manager, organizer and a problem solver. Every patient has different needs and a variety of methods are required to solve them. A social worker’s role is to be there to help and do whatever they can to ensure the best outcome for the patient.