Health Social Work Degrees and Careers – Becoming a Health Social Worker [2024]

What Does a Health Social Worker Do?

Health social work is a rapidly growing field in which highly trained social workers deliver services to individuals and families, usually in a healthcare setting. Health social workers may work in an administrative capacity, devising support programs for individuals in hospitals, nursing homes, or other healthcare facilities.

Health social workers may also serve as case managers or patient advocates while others provide counseling and crisis intervention services. Their primary purpose is to help clients meet the financial, emotional, and social needs related to injury, illness, and death. Because some positions only require a bachelor’s degree, there are many opportunities for entrance into the field of health social work.

In hospitals, palliative care facilities, nursing homes, and other care-based settings, health social workers are responsible for helping patients and their families identify services, coordinate services, and various other case management related activities. They will usually assist in the admission and discharge processes, helping familiarize patients and their families with the facility and its services, and providing information about community resources available upon discharge.

Health social workers will often provide therapeutic services to patients and their families as well, particularly in crisis situations when injury or death have occurred. If a patient is terminal, a health social worker might assist in end of life planning and writing advanced directives.

Related: How to Become a Clinical Social Worker

Why Do We Need Health Social Workers?

Health social workers help patients at a time of physical and psychological stress to access the information and services they require to cope with health issues. They provide a trusted source and counseling when people need it most.

Health social workers act as advocates for patients, representing their interests within interdisciplinary teams, often facilitating involvement of other services. This assistance is providing a role that no other does and that is vitally important to a patient who may be struggling with severe health challenges.

This unique group of social workers are concerned with all aspects of a client’s physical and mental health. Their assistance in finding relevant support services and aiding patients in applying for them may mean that a patient gets education or financial assistance that they might otherwise have missed. Not only that, but they can also provide support for families.

Whether it’s helping deal with a chronic condition or a terminal diagnosis, health social workers will aim to provide expert knowledge and assistance to all involved.

Some health social workers act in advisory roles, guiding service and policy decision making. Their ‘front line’ experience make them a group of professionals uniquely qualified to talk about best practice throughout the journey a patient with health issues endures.

What are the Requirements to Become a Health Social Worker?

Health Social Worker Degrees

The educational requirements for a health social worker depend upon the level of employment. Entry-level case management positions are available for workers with a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) or a closely related field such as psychology.

Bachelor’s degree programs typically involve 120 credit hours, 60 of which are focused on the acquisition general knowledge and skills related to the delivery of social work services.

Master’s degrees in social work (MSW) usually require two years of study after the conferment of a bachelor’s degree. MSW programs focus on building students’ skills as they pertain to specific applications in the field of social work.

For students interested in health social work, courses may focus on health delivery systems administration, public policy, crisis intervention and counseling services, addictions, and perspectives on health and wellness. In addition to classroom learning, MSW students must participate in several hundred hours of practicum and internship placements in healthcare settings.

For social workers that wish to work in an administrative capacity at a healthcare facility, those who want to teach at the collegiate level, and those who want to pursue a career in social research, Ph.D. and Doctorate of Social Work (DSW) programs are available.

Doctoral programs typically last for three to five years after receipt of a master’s degree and focus on highly specific studies in the student’s area of interest. Admission to these programs is highly competitive with high standards for admission, including a MSW from an accredited program and several years of experience in the field.

Health Social Worker Training

Some social workers are required to undergo specialized training above and beyond what they undertake in their collegiate studies. This typically involves two or three years of supervision in a social work employment setting. Additionally, all social workers must undertake continuing education training throughout their career in order to maintain licensure eligibility.

Health Social Worker Licensure

Although licensing requirements can vary slightly from state to state, all social workers with a master’s degree in social work (MSW) are eligible for licensure. To be licensed, an individual’s MSW must be from an accredited institution recognized by the Council on Social Work Education or another nationally recognized accrediting body. To achieve the highest level of licensure, a social worker must additionally have two to three years of supervised social work practice.

Some bachelor’s level social workers are eligible for licensure as well, but the types and extent of licensure available vary widely. However, social workers with a bachelor’s degree are usually only licensed for lower level work such as case management.

Where Does a Health Social Worker Work?

Health social workers are employed in a variety of settings related to the healthcare industry. The largest number of health social workers are employed in hospitals while a significant number of others are employed in clinics and other primary care settings. Nursing homes and residential facilities are also common work environments.

Some health social workers are employed by government or non-profit agencies to provide guidance with regard to healthcare policy development and advocacy. Many experienced health social workers move into teaching at the collegiate level as well.

What Skills and Qualities are Needed for a Health Social Worker?

Because health social workers typically work with hospitalized patients and their families, having the capacity for empathy is highly important. Health social workers must be able to connect with patients, understand the situation from their perspective, and provide services in a compassionate manner. Other essential personal skills include:

  • Respect for diversity – Health social workers provide services to individuals and families of all shapes and sizes. Having respect for different cultural, racial, ethnic, religious, economic, and political perspectives is necessary for effective practice.
  • Courage – Because many health social workers provide services to individuals that are near the end of their life or are suffering from severe illness or injury, courage to work in a high-stress, complex, and emotionally charged environment is required.
  • Flexibility – Due to the unpredictable nature of when services might be required, health social workers must be prepared to work at any time of day and night. On-call duty is also quite common, as is working on weekends and holidays.
  • Commitment – Health social work is a rapidly growing and changing field. In order to stay current on best practices for effective service delivery, health social workers must have a commitment to continuing to learn and grow as a professional.

What is the Salary and Job Outlook for Health Social Workers?

Health social workers enjoy a higher annual income than social workers in general. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median yearly income for a social worker is $64,360.

The job outlook for health social workers is excellent, with growth projected at 9% over the next decade. This represents robust growth at a much faster rate than other occupations. The need for health social workers will continue to be strong, particularly as more Baby Boomers retire and need healthcare services.

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