What Is A Medical Social Worker?

A brush with the vast American healthcare system is a spin of the roulette wheel for many people. It’s the largest healthcare system in the world, accounting for 18 percent of the country’s GDP in 2016 according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and one of the most confusing… a mishmash of public and private insurance, overlapping pay scales, hidden costs, contradictory referral rules.

Patients may go into the system with a life-threatening disease and come out the other side completely healthy, or they might be told the costs of promising treatments are out of their reach.

It’s an industry that can offer the finest health care in the world, but sometimes still needs a human touch. When the news is overwhelming or the odds seem insurmountable, the friendly smile and helpful information coming from a medical social worker can be a godsend for patients.

Medical social workers who are also well-versed in applied behavior analysis are also becoming more valuable to both clients and employers today. ABA is a scientifically-validated set of techniques and treatments being adopted across the medical field to deal with everything from rehabilitation from traumatic brain injury to dementia in geriatric care centers. Using ABA skills to perform a functional behavior analysis and implement treatments such as discrete trial training may become more and more important in medical social work over the coming years.

Medical Social Worker Job Description

Medical social worker might sound like a job that you would only find in hospitals, but there are actually a wide range of possible employers and a diverse array of job types available. You can find yourself working at hospice houses, in long-term assisted living facilities, at colleges, or for religious organizations. You might visit patients in their own homes, or spend most of your time out in the community providing healthcare assistance information.

Cost Analysis and Research

With almost two-thirds of all bankruptcy proceedings in America stemming from overwhelming medical debt according to a 2018 article in the American Journal of Public Health, many medical social work positions essentially function as cost analysts. Understanding the complexities of medical billing, public assistance programs, and the ins and outs of private insurance coverage are key skills that many medical social workers develop to help their clients get the level of care they need.

Knowledge of the current state of the industry can also be, literally, a life-saver. Knowing which states don’t have motorcycle helmet laws might be esoteric trivia in some circles; for a patient with end-stage renal disease, that information coming from a medical social worker might make all the difference in getting onto a shorter waiting list for a kidney transplant.

Because the stakes are often life and death, it can seem like you are always operating at a high tempo as a medical social worker. Most days will be a flurry of phone calls, quick conferences with providers, discussions with patients, and conducting online research.

Assessing Patient Needs

Assessment is a key part of the job for most medical social workers. You’ll evaluate patients from both the medical and psychosocial stances, looking at their mental status, social environment, financial status, and medical condition to knit together a comprehensive idea of their needs.

Discharge Planning

For medical social workers in hospital or clinic environments, discharge planning can take up large parts of the day. Many patients need assistance in making the transition from a constant, attended care environment to their home or an assisted living facility. Social workers can help make arrangements for skilled nursing or home health services, transportation from the hospital, obtaining required medical equipment, and handling the inevitable paperwork. It’s an important job not only to that particular patient, but to the medical facility as a whole, in order to free up tight bed space for the next patient.

Patient Advising

Part of that process, and a larger one, involves counseling patients. That can take the form of simply listening, offering a sympathetic ear to patients and their families, or it may involve sharing advice and recommendations on how to adapt to a new condition or bad news.

Resource Assistance

That also means arranging resources for patients, in the form of government assistance programs, caregiver assistance, or finding discount prescription medication programs. Medical social workers might also make referrals to outside agencies like Child Protective Services or law enforcement based on their assessments of certain patient injuries or environmental factors.

In particular, behavioral therapies are becoming a key resource for medical social workers. Applied behavioral therapy is increasingly finding success in addiction treatment and in work with the developmentally delayed, and understanding the theory and practice of applied behavior analysis is becoming a larger part of how medical social workers approach certain cases.

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How To Become a Medical Social Worker

You need to have a lot of information and a lot of energy to become an effective medical social worker. It’s a process that can take several years and involves getting both the right education and the right practical experience for the role.

What Kind of Degree is Needed to Become a Medical Social Worker?

All paths into medical social work involve getting the right education. That means earning a master’s degree in social work (MSW) from a CSWE (Council on Social Work Education)-accredited school. Not only does CSWE accreditation ensure you are getting the most widely-accepted and up-to-date education in social work, but it’s also a requirement in most states when it comes time to apply for your state-issued social work license.

As part of a master’s program, you’ll receive a complete education in the historical and socioeconomic factors that shape today’s society, with training in cultural sensitivity and ethical and legal obligations. You’ll learn about behavioral and psychological factors and issues of social justice that help shape the current healthcare system.

Many MSW programs today offer healthcare concentrations, which will add to your subject-specific expertise with courses that cover relevant topics like health disparities, wellness promotion, and the general medical terminology and other knowledge required to work in a medical facility.

How to Become Licensed as a Medical Social Worker

Almost all medical social worker positions require an advanced (master’s-level) clinical license to perform social work in the state where the job is located. Although each state has its own requirements and qualifications for licensed independent clinical social workers (LICSW), all of them rely on the national examination administered by the Association of Social Work Boards to test your knowledge and job readiness.

You’ll also have to take a separate exam on that state’s legal and ethical standards, as well as demonstrate you have had a suitable amount of supervised on-the-job experience for the role.

Do I Need Some Sort of Nationally-Recognized Certification?

Although it’s not a requirement for most positions, it can add to your credentials to obtain a Certified Social Worker in Health Care (C-SWHC) specialized certification from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).

In addition to the CSWE-accredited master’s degree, you’ll need to document at least two years of paid, supervised, post-MSW social work in a medical or healthcare environment, as well as a current master’s-level state license and strict adherence to the NSW Code of Ethics and Standards for Continuing Professional Education.

Earning a BCBA as a Medical Social Worker

Although a BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) credential could be very useful for medical social workers, the path to earning the credential has been a hard one for most people outside the fields of education, psychology, and ABA specifically – but that’s starting to change.

Getting licensed as an LICSW requires you hold an MSW, but getting a BCBA from the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) requires, in part, earning a master’s in either applied behavior analysis, psychology, or education. Outside of entering a dual master’s program, that’s made it all-but-impossible to up your ABA game in medical social work today.

But as of 2022, the BACB will start accepting master’s holders from other fields, including social work, to satisfy the degree component of their requirements. You will still need to undergo at least 315 hours of graduate coursework in a VCS (Verified Course Sequence), which is a post-graduate program specifically designed to include the mix of courses required for the BCBA. Some schools offering the VCS post-graduate option are already accepting non-traditional entrants with master’s degrees in areas like social work and human services.

Although it’s still not an easy credential to earn, it will be an increasingly valuable and highly-respected one for medical social workers to have. The BACB believes input from more diverse groups of professionals will enhance both behavior analysis as a profession, and all those fields it touches.

Typical Salary Levels for Medical Social Workers

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks salary and employment data for medical social workers under the category of Healthcare Social Workers. For 2021, the bureau found that the median annual wage for the position was $60,840, or $29.25 per hour. In the top ten percent of the profession, however, medical social workers could make more than $86,820.

The bureau also breaks down income levels by industry, which can have a substantial effect on wages. Significantly, the general medical and surgical hospital industry comes in only fifth overall, offering a mean annual wage of $71,440.

Location can influence compensation as well as industry and experience. The states with the highest employment level for the position are California and New York, but Washington, D.C. comes out on top in terms of salary, with a mean annual wage of $87,000. Unsurprisingly, San Jose (also includes Sunnyvale and Santa Clara) is also the highest paying metropolitan area in the country for the job, going over $105,600 on average.

Both the salary levels and the demand for this critical position are likely to remain high in the United States for the foreseeable future, making it a solid career to get into today.

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2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Healthcare Social Workers reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed January 2023.