Learning About the Health Care Social Worker Career

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Social work is centered around making a tangible, positive difference in the lives of other people. Health care social work, all about providing support and guidance to people facing life-changing injuries and illnesses, is a specific branch of this field, one that may prove rewarding for professionals with the knowledge and emotional intelligence to thrive within it.

Social worker with senior patient

An ideal skill set for a health care social worker can encompass many areas of expertise, from communication and caregiving to a detailed understanding of relevant health law and policy. Well-informed and knowledgeable social workers will be well equipped to provide patients and their families the support they need without delay or difficulty.

Health care social worker job description and duties

In all settings, social workers engage with individual clients or groups going through challenges that may require psychological or physical care and support. In hospitals and other medical settings, this often involves illnesses that are chronic, severe or even terminal. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics noted that clinical social workers are called on to meet with family members as well as individuals coping with illnesses or injuries, and provide services such as education, counseling and care referrals.

The National Association of Social Workers added that social work roles exist across a wide spectrum of places and situations. Social workers may serve in prevention and public health positions, providing intervention and counseling for people who have not contracted an illness but are at high risk. Furthermore, even in direct care settings, there is variety, encompassing rehabilitation facilities, acute care, hospice, nursing homes, long-term care and home health, among others.

In addition to the day-to-day duties of meeting with clients, social workers in health care can advocate for high-quality, equitable care for patients. The NASW added that health care social workers should address the ongoing disparities in care that put communities of color or economically disadvantaged populations at greater risk of illness.

The NASW broke down effective and conscientious social work practices into seven standards that represent the best practices of providing advice, counseling and care in health care settings:

  • Social workers should maintain their clients’ self-determination, focusing their efforts on reaching patients’ goals.
  • Professionals must show cultural awareness, upholding the dignity of all people.
  • Clinical social workers have to understand their clients’ challenges and goals in the context of their unique environments.
  • Strengths, resilience and the ability to grow should be the main focus of social workers’ efforts, rather than pathology.
  • Social workers have to respect the primacy of their direct therapeutic relationships with patients.
  • Both in their day-to-day work and in a larger social context, social workers should strive for justice and equitable treatment of people.
  • Practicing social workers should respect and focus on research to keep the field’s knowledge and understanding moving forward.

How to become a health care social worker

The Department of Labor’s O*NET pointed out that there is increasing demand for health care social workers, with positions in this field expected to increase by 15% in the decade between 2016 and 2026. Compared to the 7% expansion expected for all jobs, that high figure shows that care facilities of all kinds will be looking for new social workers. Aspiring health care social workers can begin working on their essential skills now through work experience in related positions and potentially entering relevant graduate programs.

O*NET indicated that medical social work roles are typically not beginning roles professionals can take on with just a bachelor’s degree. Most of the roles in this field are meant for people who have earned a related master’s degree and accumulated multiple years of experience. There is some on-the-job education for new social workers, but they are expected to come into the roles already possessing relevant knowledge and credentials.

Since social work is such an intensive, patient-focused field, professionals should have degrees in social work from schools accredited by the Council on Social Work Education, and they should also be licensed to practice in their home states.

Health law and policy courses related to social work

In addition to degree programs directly focusing on social work, there are additional graduate programs that may equip social workers with the knowledge they need to succeed in their roles, especially when it comes to up-to-date legal and policy matters in health care. The online Master of Arts in Health Law and Policy from Hofstra Law is one such program.

Pursuing the 100% online master’s program allows professionals to keep their full-time jobs while also gaining essential insights on the ever-evolving health care laws. When seeking to guide clients to the best possible outcomes, such information may prove pivotal. To learn more about the online Master of Arts in Health Law and Policy, visit the program page here.


Recommended Readings:

How a health law and policy program can prepare you to advocate for patients

Top health law and policy skills relevant for any career in the industry


O*NET Online – Summary Report for: 21-1022.00 – Healthcare Social Workers

Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy – Social Work Must Keep a Sharp Eye on Healthcare Policy

National Association of Social Workers – NASW Standards for Social Work Practice in Health Care Settings

Bureau of Labor Statistics – Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2018 21-1022 Healthcare Social Workers