This guide is a deep dive into what it takes to become a medical social worker. The guide will outline what kind of degrees are required to get a job as a medical social worker as well as important career considerations such as medical social worker salary ranges, certifications, and the overall job outlook for the medical social work field.
Becoming a medical social worker
Medical social workers are found in hospitals as well as general care and a variety of specialized medical facilities. In these settings, social workers are a critical resource for patients and their families as they attempt to understand an illness, process difficult emotions, and reach informed decisions about their future.
Hospital social workers rely heavily on case management skills to assist patients and families with the financial, social, and psychological challenges that are related to the health condition. These factors can significantly impact the lives of patients (and their health outcomes) but are frequently not addressed by other members of a medical team.
Hospitals and other medical settings are often fast-paced. Social workers play a critical role as part of interdisciplinary teams because of their “person-in-environment” perspective. This view examines all of the factors impacting a patient’s health beyond the diagnosed medical condition, such as how transportation problems can limit compliance with follow-up treatment.
This broader focus is part of why medical social workers are able to quickly identify ways to improve the lives of patients and families and ensure better treatment outcomes.
When considering this profession there is some important information to keep in mind.
How to become a medical social worker
- Obtain a bachelor’s degree Medical social work positions require a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW). This requirement can sometimes be satisfied with a degree in a related field, such as sociology or psychology. The BSW degree is particularly useful for medical social workers because the coursework involved focuses on the case management skills that are essential for success in this field.
- Pursue a master’s in social work Almost all medical social work positions require a master’s in social work (MSW). For many types of medical social work, such as assisted living facilities, nursing homes, and rehabilitation facilities, clinical licenses are not required and an MSW degree is sufficient.
- Work experience in a medical setting Practical experience in a hospital or other medical setting is highly sought after by employers. Many social workers gain this experience through field placements or internships during their MSW program, but volunteering or past professional exposure in related fields can be another way to get medical experience.
- Earn clinical licensure Most hospitals will require that medical social workers also hold a license as a clinical social worker (abbreviated as LCSW, LICSW or LISW). The specific requirements for clinical licensure vary by state, but generally require at least two years post-MSW experience, passing the ASWB clinical examination, and a specified number of hours of supervision by a licensed social worker.
- Pursue specialized certification as explored in greater detail in this guide, many medical social workers can pursue a certification in a specialized practice area, such as pediatrics, oncology, or phrenology. This can be an important career step to develop and demonstrate a specific knowledge-base related to the medical setting and patient needs.
What is a medical social worker?
Social workers are employed in a wide variety of medical settings and often perform specialized services depending on the specific health condition. While the duties of medical social workers will vary widely, providing support to patients and their families is the common element. To do this, medical social workers serve different but interlinked roles.
One such role is as a navigator and guide for patients in the midst of difficult life situations. In many instances, the underlying medical crisis is only one part of the care equation. Social workers help patients adjust to the medical setting (such as hospital or nursing home), understand their condition and treatment options, and navigate the medical system. Hospital and other medical social workers also assist patients and their families as they make decisions for the future, such as determining how to meet care needs or a course of treatment.
Due to their clinical background, medical social workers are also called upon to assess and monitor the mental health of patients. This can involve providing individual or group psychotherapy to patients and their families. Depending on the setting, this clinical support could include crisis intervention, end of life planning, or ongoing support for those with chronic illnesses.
Social workers also assist patients and their families with medical facility discharge planning. This can require the coordination of future services, assisting with equipment or medication, or other support needed for the patient’s next steps after leaving the hospital or medical facility. Medical social workers also assist with identifying resources that are helpful for patients and their families, such as advance planning, disability options, or insurance programs.
At a very high level, social workers help coordinate a patient’s medical care. This can involve communicating with the treatment team in the context of medical needs or advocating for the patient’s interests. Medical social workers also help patients comply with care instructions and follow-up, which leads to better health outcomes.
Medical social worker requirements and skills
- Bachelor’s degree, often in social work, psychology, or a related field
- Master’s degree in social work
- Understanding of the interplay between the elements of physical illness and mental well-being
- Grief, loss, and bereavement issues
- Mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, as well as addiction and other behavioral health conditions
- Basic medical terminology and knowledge of common medical conditions
- Counseling and behavioral change interventions, such as motivational interviewing
- Specific knowledge relevant to the area of specialization and setting, such as hospice care, oncology, emergency room,or trauma, etc.
- Resources needed by the patient base, commonly including medical insurance options, entitlement programs (such as medical coverage or transportation assistance), community resources, disability, and long-term care programs, etc.
- Mental health clinical assessment and diagnosis, including the ability to conduct an assessment of the factors impacting each patient’s biological, social, and spiritual wellbeing (known as the biopsychosocial-spiritual assessment)
- Case management/care management/care coordination/healthcare navigation
- Problem solving and ability to assist patients and their families with decision-making
- Effective verbal and written communication
- Empathy and interpersonal skills, such as engagement and listening
- Cultural awareness and sensitivity
NASW’s Standards for Social Work Practice in Health Care Settings is a good resource to learn more about the requirements and skills needed by medical social workers.
What do medical social workers do?
Medical social workers may find employment in a variety of settings, including hospitals, public and private healthcare facilities, hospices, outpatient clinics, residential care facilities, and home health care agencies. In all of these places, social workers are a critical resource for patients, their families and the larger treatment team.
The job description below helps to demonstrate the range of functions that medical social workers may perform in different settings. This hypothetical explores an event in the day of a medical social worker with a specialization in oncology:
On the oncology floor of a large public hospital, a new patient arrives in the midst of a health crisis. The patient and her family already feared that the patient’s illness is cancer-related and have received test results confirming this suspicion. The social worker is called upon to serve the family in a way the rest of the treatment team cannot.
In this hypothetical, the social worker immediately relies on interpersonal skills to build connections with the family and assess their wellbeing. The social worker acts as a crucial resource as the family begins to process what it means for the patient to have cancer. This requires addressing questions about the type of cancer and treatment options. The family is also unfamiliar with the hospital environment, and the worker orients them to the environment and the treatment team.
The social worker also extends attention to the patient and family’s needs beyond treating the patient’s cancer. This includes the support groups for individuals with this type of cancer and for the children of parents with cancer, as well as community resources that may help (such as disability or financial support). Direct mental health support is provided to the patient for distress associated with learning of their diagnosis. This includes monitoring feelings of anxiety and depression, helping the patient process what their cancer means in the context of their life, and teaching coping skills.
To continue to support the patient and family, the social worker begins to coordinate the larger plan of care. This involves helping them make some immediate difficult decisions related to treatment and an initial plan for their future needs. The social worker also calls upon their knowledge-base to identify an array of resources to support the family, including a financial grant through a local cancer foundation. Through these steps, the medical social worker is able to quickly positively impact the patient and family.
Medical social worker job description
Medical social workers will have different job descriptions depending on the setting (such as hospital, outpatient clinic, hospice or long-term care facility, or health agency) and area of specialization.
As illustrated through the NASW occupational profile of hospital social workers, in the hospital setting the job description of social workers can include:
- Initial screening and evaluation of patients and their families
- Conducting assessments of patient’s social, spiritual and psychological functioning, such as mental status exams and family histories
- Providing patients and families with education regarding the specific illness and treatment options
- Assisting patients and families with adjusting to hospital admission and providing emotional/social support for larger life changes
- Serving as a resource on health care options, available entitlements or community resources, etc.
- Facilitating communication between the patient and family and healthcare team
- Helping families with decision-making and navigating services
- Crisis intervention
- Serving as an expert mental health resource, including diagnosing underlying mental illness and facilitating psychotherapy referrals
- Coordinating patient discharge and continuity of care, including ensuring communication and understanding about post-hospital care
- Arranging and coordinating resources for medications, medical equipment or other needed services
- Advocating for patient and family needs in hospital, outpatient, home and community settings.
NASW’s occupational profile of social workers in health clinics and outpatient health care settings illustrates how these job functions will shift focus in outpatient medical settings to include:
- Helping patients navigate services
- Identification and referral for specialized services
- Assistance with entitlements, medication, transportation, and advance directives
- Assessment and intervention in domestic violence and child abuse situations
- Community-level advocacy on behalf of patients and families.
For social workers in hospice and palliative care settings, these job functions may include:
- Psychosocial education for patients and family caregivers about coping skills and care strategies
- Planning for discharge and coordinating care
- Facilitating advance directives and lifespan planning
- Mediating conflicts between various groups, including families, the treatment team and service organizations
- Identifying and linking clients with resources
- Counseling and psychotherapy for individuals, groups, and couples.
Social workers in medical settings can also be employed in non-clinical roles, including as administrators or managers of specific hospital programs in a variety of areas (such as mental health, aging, or community outreach).
Additional medical social worker certifications and special training
Given the wide range of settings and diversity of roles, medical social workers can pursue a variety of specializations, such as pediatrics, oncology, nephrology, transplant, and emergency/trauma. Some MSW students pursuing a career in medical social work may obtain this specialized training through graduate level coursework, field experiences or research projects.
In most instances, however, medical social workers develop a specialization through membership in professional associations and continuing education. The Association of Oncology Social Work (AOSW) is one such association and outlines a process that social workers can follow to obtain an Oncology Social Work Certification. The National Kidney Foundation Council of Nephrology Social Workers offers a similar certification. Medical social workers are often able to learn more about special training and certifications available through specialized professional associations relevant to their practice area, such as the Society for Transplant Social Workers, the Social Work Hospice and Palliative Care Network and The National Association of Perinatal Social Workers.
Some medical social work professionals also apply through the NASW to be a certified social worker in health care. While not focused on a sub-specialty, this certification communicates a greater degree of knowledge in the larger profession..
Medical social worker career outlook
The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts 17 percent growth in jobs for healthcare social workers between 2018 and 2028, which is much faster than many other professions. The Mayo Clinic explains that this trend, or increased demand, is the result of the United States’ large aging population. The bigger, older population is fueling an increasing demand for medical care, which in turn is expected to require more medical social workers.
Nonetheless, increasing healthcare costs and struggles to ensure access have led some to caution that such services can be the target of budget cuts to “non-essential” services in hospitals (for more on this see the article by Rene Michelson, a professor in the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work). As this guide has explored, however, medical social workers play a vital role in a wide variety of healthcare settings. In fact, research demonstrates that medical social workers can decrease overall healthcare costs.
Medical social worker salary
According to data prepared by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for healthcare social workers in 2016 was $53,760. This was approximately $10,000 more than social workers who worked as child/family/school social workers or in mental health/substance abuse. The work setting impacted salary for healthcare workers, with those in hospitals earning more (median salary of $59,410) than those in home healthcare services (median salary of $55,360) or services for elderly or people with disabilities (median salary of $43,940).
NASW research demonstrates that the median salary of medical social workers with a MSW is approximately $20,000 higher than those with a BSW. The type of position will significantly impact salary, with the highest rates for social workers in administrative positions. These individuals earn a median salary of $92,000, which is more than $30,000 higher than social workers in other medical roles.
To learn more about specific medical social work career options check out NASW’s occupational profiles of social workers in health clinics and outpatient settings, social workers in hospice and palliative care settings and social workers in hospitals and medical settings. These further distill how variables such as geographic region, years of experience and work setting impact the salary of medical social workers.