The Role of a Medical Social Worker

June 17, 2015


If you are looking for a career in the medical field, which focuses more on a patient’s psychosocial needs than their physical care, working as a medical social worker may be an option. Medical social workers, also referred to as hospital social workers, play an important role in the healthcare team.

Doctors and nurses care for the patient’s physical needs but are not trained to deal with other issues. That is where a medical social worker can come in. Hospitalization and dealing with a medical condition creates unique needs among patients. In some situations, patients may already have issues, such as homelessness or addiction, and a medical condition only complicates things further.

Responsibilities of a Medical Social Worker

Medical social workers start by assessing the patient for psychosocial problems, which they may need help with. They determine what psychological, social or financial problems a patient is having due to their medical condition.

Hospital social workers will not see every patient that comes into the hospital. They will usually receive a referral from a doctor or nurse for social work services.

After assessing the patient’s needs, the social worker will intervene as needed. The assistance needed may vary depending on the patient’s needs. For example, some patients may need help connecting with services in their community, such as a homeless shelter or drug treatment support. Other patients may need help understanding their medical condition and navigating everything involved with their hospital stay.

Social workers also provide patient education on treatment options and help coordinate services needed after discharge, such as medical equipment. Medical social workers also arrange grief counseling or other mental health services for patients.

Education and Training for Medical Social Workers

Although a bachelor’s degree in social work may be enough to obtain an entry level job, most medical facilities prefer to hire someone with a master’s degree in social work. After earning a master’s degree, social workers can start working towards their license. Rules for becoming a licensed social worker vary by state. Information on individual state requirements can be found through the Association of Social Work Boards.

In most cases, licensure requires working a specific number of hours under the supervision of a licensed social worker. Some medical facilities may hire social workers who are working towards licensure. Optional certification is also available through the National Association of Social Workers. After meeting requirements, social workers can apply to become certified in areas, such as health care, hospice and palliative care and geriatrics. Although certification may not be needed to get a job, it shows additional dedication and knowledge in the field.

Opportunities and Salary

Medical social workers primary work in hospitals, hospices, and nursing homes. Some medical social workers specialize and work in certain areas, such as oncology, trauma or pediatrics.

Salaries for medical social workers depend on their credentials, whether they are licensed and years of experience. According to a survey by the National Association of Social Workers, the average salary for medical social workers with an MSW in 2013 was about $55,000 a year.