What Is Medical Social Work?

What Is Medical Social Work? 

Medical social work is a field that focuses on meeting the various needs of individuals, families and communities navigating challenges in health and wellness. When people are sick, in addition to physical care, they also may need support for the emotional, financial and social complications that can arise. They may feel overwhelmed when dealing with the health care system, need help planning their after-care transition or want counseling support to help them process the changes in their lives. Medical social workers address all of these needs, in a variety of settings.

What Does a Medical Social Worker Do? 

Medical social workers help people navigate and address issues related to mental health, aging, hospital navigation and health care decision-making, as well as bigger public health challenges in the community. 

Medical social workers can be found in a variety of organizations where they have a number of different responsibilities. In addition to medical hospitals, they may also work in settings such as: 

  • public health organizations
  • rehabilitative care centers
  • palliative care facilities
  • outpatient care centers
  • mental health organizations
  • facilities for people with substance use disorders
  • home-care services

In addition to coordinating with medical staff, medical social workers may also provide counseling or therapy to individuals or families. They may even conduct mental health evaluations and diagnose mental health conditions. Many medical social workers perform case management tasks for patients who face additional obstacles, such as financial difficulties, obtaining and adhering to medication, and accessing housing that meets their medical needs.

Some medical social workers decide to specialize in a particular field, such as gerontology or infant care, whereas others choose to work with a variety of patients. Those with specialties may want to work for a large hospital or organization, or they may decide to start a private practice as an expert or consultant.

Medical Social Worker Salary

The mean salary for a health care social worker in 2018 was $58,470, or $28.11 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Medical social worker salaries vary depending on the industry. For example, social workers employed at general medical and surgical hospitals earned an average of $64,910 a year, whereas health care social worker jobs at nursing care facilities paid $53,930 on average in 2018.

Health care social worker salary may also vary by state. Nevada, California, Connecticut, the District of Columbia and Oregon were the top-paying states for medical social worker jobs in 2018, according to the BLS.

How to Become a Medical Social Worker

Most health care organizations and hospitals require a Master of Social Work (MSW) when they hire medical social workers, though a bachelor’s degree in social work may suffice for entry-level positions. In an MSW program, students must complete the required curriculum as well as supervised training in their desired career track.

To improve their chances of employment as a medical social worker, many people with an MSW degree also obtain licensure as a social worker in their state. Licensure, which varies by state, typically requires several thousand hours of supervised clinical work and passing a licensure exam. For licensure, many states also require that your degree is earned from a Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)-accredited institution.

Medical Social Worker Education

When choosing a graduate program in social work, potential students interested in becoming a medical social worker should look for programs that offer a health-and-wellness-focused curriculum.

An MSW program that trains future medical social workers will offer coursework in relevant topics, such as wellness, integrated care, mental health and substance abuse recovery. Some schools will allow students to study in a specialized department, such as USC’s online Master of Social Work specialization in adult mental health and wellness, where students can take courses and complete field experiences specific to their area of interest. When researching MSW programs that educate medical social workers, prospective students can ask for a list of course offerings as well as field placement sites. They can also ask what percentage of graduates from the program go on to acquire licensure in social work and become medical social workers.

How do you know if becoming a medical social worker is right for you? If you enjoy learning about health and wellness, advocating for patients, and providing guidance and a sense of calmness in times of crisis, then the role of a medical social worker might be a career path worth pursuing

Navigating the medical system can be complicated for patients and their families. But medical social workers can help. Their job focuses on providing people with chronic and acute illnesses with everything from mental health and financial support to rehabilitation and palliative care services.

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Citation for this content: The MSW@USC, the online Master of Social Work program at the University of Southern California.