How to Become a Hospital Social Worker – Degrees and Career Guide [2024]

What is a Hospital Social Worker?

A hospital social worker serves to assist patients in dealing with the sometimes-overwhelming effects of hospitalization. Patients and families of patients are often under a lot of emotional pressure and financial stress due to illness or injury.

Additionally, there are needs to be addressed after the patient is discharged, like the need for home-based care and rehabilitative services.

Hospital social workers help patients meet all of these needs by providing training, resources, and other support. In other words, a hospital social worker helps patients and their families navigate the process of illness and injury, from hospitalization to recovery.

What Does a Hospital Social Worker Do?

On a very basic level, hospital social workers act as liaisons for patients such that the patient and their family can better navigate the health care system, which can sometimes be quite confusing. In that regard, hospital social workers are a primary point of contact for patients and their families about policies, procedures, and services both in the hospital and after the patient’s release.

Sometimes, hospital social workers even serve as a resource about the illness or injury itself. For example, in larger medical facilities, hospital social workers might specialize in working with a specific population, like patients that have cancer, or they might specialize in a certain department, like the emergency room.

Beyond providing information to patients and their families, hospital social workers provide emotional support during times of crisis.

As an example, a hospital social worker might be on hand to meet with a family after learning that their loved one has been diagnosed with a life-threatening condition. In that capacity, the social worker might offer therapeutic treatments, such as psychotherapy, to help the family work through the emotions they feel.

Related Reading: How to Become a Public Health Social Worker

Hospital social workers also work directly with patients in a variety of capacities. They might conduct a psychosocial assessment of the patient upon admittance to the facility. They might also work with a patient that is soon to be discharged on the types of aftercare that are available to them and how to procure such services.

Another critical component of a hospital social worker’s duties is to help educate other health care professionals about underlying issues they might encounter with their patients.

For example, social workers might conduct trainings for hospital staff so they are better equipped to recognize issues like anxiety or depression that might present themselves in patients that have serious health issues as well.

There is also a large advocacy component to this career. Hospital social workers don’t just advocate on the behalf of patients while they’re in the hospital. Instead, they work closely with the medical team, family, and community stakeholders to ensure each patient has the support system they need recover from their illness or injury.

This might involve working with Medicare or Medicaid to fund home-health care services, contacting insurance companies to get coverage for prescriptions, arranging outpatient treatments, or working on health care policy to protect the health care rights of all patients.

What Does a Children’s Hospital Social Worker Do?

As noted above, hospital social workers primarily help patients to navigate the health care system by providing various types of support, be that emotional support through therapy, organizational support by arranging services after discharge, and everything in between. But working with children means that there are additional roles and duties.

A significant part of a children’s hospital social worker’s job is in educating their young patients about their conditions.

For example, if a pediatric patient has been diagnosed with leukemia, the social worker might be the point person for helping the patient to understand what leukemia is, how it will affect their body, the treatments that can be used to combat the disease, and so forth.

Naturally, a large portion of this job revolves around helping parents and siblings of the patient to work through the heavy emotions and feelings that are associated with having a loved one diagnosed with a serious illness.

Again, as noted earlier, social workers typically fulfill this role by offering counseling and therapeutic services that help alleviate some of that emotional strain.

Why Do We Need Hospital Social Workers?

Hospital social workers are the ideal go-between for patients and hospital staff. Not only do they help facilitate proper care during and after hospitalization, but they also help educate medical staff about how to work effectively with different kinds of patients and how to assist families in dealing with the stressors of illness and injury. In other words, these professionals are needed to help minimize the impact on patients and their families.

Furthermore, hospital social workers are critical in the delivery of services after a patient is released from the hospital. They play the crucial role of connecting patients to needed services, coordinating payments and insurance reimbursements, and facilitating communication between stakeholders to ensure that the best care is being provided.

Though hospital social workers aren’t doctors or nurses, they nevertheless have a key part in helping patients recover and do so as quickly as possible.

What are the Requirements to Become a Hospital Social Worker?

Educational Requirements

At a minimum, hospital social workers must have a Bachelor’s of Social Work (BSW) degree, which usually takes four years to complete.

Like many undergraduate programs, a BSW program focuses on helping students develop the foundational skills needed to enter their desired career field. This is done through general studies courses like science, mathematics, language arts, and social studies, as well as through coursework specific to social work. These courses might include psychology, introduction to social work, human development, social work practice, and instruction in caring for older adults.

For improved preparation for a career in social work and for more opportunities to find jobs, a Master’s of Social Work (MSW) is often necessary. MSW programs vary in length from one year to two years, with some programs extending even further, depending upon the number of credit hours and other requirements for graduation.

MSW programs help students build on their knowledge and skills of social work and begin to put those skills into greater practice during their MSW studies. That’s because in addition to classroom learning on topics like child welfare, working with different ethnic populations, research, and ethics, students are also required to participate in internship placements in which they work directly with clients, as well as research.

Admission to MSW programs is dependent on a variety of factors, and might include having an undergraduate degree from an accredited institution, a satisfactory GPA, letters of recommendation from undergraduate professors, and a written personal statement.

Licensure Requirements

Typically, licensure is mandatory for BSW and MSW-level workers. Depending on the level of licensure, the requirements do vary somewhat. However, at a minimum, social workers must hold a degree from an accredited institution and pass a social work licensing exam.

For more advanced licensure as a Advanced Generalist or Licensed Clinical Social Worker, there are additional requirements, including having at least two years of post-master’s supervised work experience or two years of post-master’s direct clinical social work experience.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Hospital Social Worker?

To become a hospital social worker, you need a bachelor’s degree in social work at a minimum. As noted earlier, this degree typically takes four years to complete, though it might be completed more quickly if extra classes are taken, particularly during the summer school session.

However, to have the most career opportunities and opportunities for advancement, a master’s degree in social work is highly recommended. Usually, master’s degree programs take an additional one to three years of study after bachelor’s degree studies are finished, for a total of anywhere from five to seven years of collegiate education.

What Does It Take to Become a Hospital Social Worker?

Hospital social workers must have a solid balance of hard skills, soft skills, and personal traits to be effective in their job. This includes:

  • Communication skills – Social workers must have excellent verbal and written communication skills. They must also possess strong active listening skills.
  • Organizational skills – Because hospital social workers coordinate much of a patient’s care during and after hospitalization, they must have a keen eye for detail.
  • Critical thinking skills – Not only is every person different, but every illness is different, too. That means hospital social workers must be able to think critically and creatively.
  • Emotional intelligence – Social workers must have a strong connection to their feelings, the feelings of others, and must be self-aware and sensitive to the needs of other people.
  • Understanding of medical conditions – To be effective in their positions, hospital social workers must have an in-depth understanding of many common medical conditions.
  • Understanding of medical terms – Not only do workers in this field need to understand the medical terminology that’s used to describe various medical conditions, but they must also be able to convey what those terms mean in layman’s terms such that patients and their families understand them.
  • Therapeutic skills – A large part of this job is providing counseling and therapy to people under a lot of emotional stress, so social workers must have a strong ability to provide comfort and guidance in a therapeutic setting.
  • Ability to work as part of a team – Hospital social workers can be thought of as the go-between for patients, their families, and hospital staff. As a result, they must be able to work well with others to achieve common goals.
  • Empathy – Hospital social workers must be able to empathize with the feelings and emotions experienced by their patients and their patients’ loved ones.
  • Tolerance – Illness and injury plague all kinds of different people from different walks of life. Hospital social workers must see the value in every person and be respectful towards each patient.

How Much Does a Hospital Social Worker Make?

As reported by Payscale, the median annual salary for a hospital social worker was $60,608 as of January 2024. The primary factor that determines earnings in this line of work is the employer, with larger hospitals and HMOs offering higher compensation than smaller medical facilities.

Additional factors that influence the salary of hospital social workers are geographic location and length of employment. Regarding geographic location, pay is far higher in urban areas like Oakland, New York, and Houston than it is in rural areas. Furthermore, the more education and experience one has, the more salary they can command.

What Careers are Similar to Hospital Social Work?

Licensed clinical social workerLicensed clinical social workers (LCSW) perform many of the same functions as hospital social workers, but in a different setting, usually in private practice. In that regard, LCSWs are a lot like counselors, and provide therapy to individuals, couples, families, and groups on a wide-range of topics.

Medical and health services manager – Like social workers, medical and health services managers help plan and coordinate services for patients, connecting them with the resources they need to continue to make a full recovery after they have been released from the hospital.

Workers in this field also strive to increase the efficiency with which services are delivered and work to ensure that the hospital or facility is in compliance with policies and regulations that govern medical care.

Rehabilitation counselor – A career as a rehabilitation counselor involves working directly with disabled clients to help them live as independently as possible. Typically, this includes evaluating clients and determining their capabilities, providing mental health or behavioral health counseling, job coaching, and other services that help clients develop their strengths and make adjustments to their limitations.

Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors – Workers in the field of substance abuse and behavioral disorder counseling provide treatment to individuals whose lives have been derailed by alcoholism, drug addiction, behavioral problems, or some combination thereof.

Treatment is usually in the form of counseling in individual and/or group settings, and seeks to modify problem behaviors so that clients can live a clean, healthy lifestyle once again.

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