Healthcare Social Work is a branch of social work that encompasses the entire healthcare system, ranging from client work within medical settings to improving healthcare services and resources in communities.

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Social workers play a crucial role within the healthcare system. The mission of healthcare social workers is to support clients and their families in accessing appropriate medical care and address other existing psychosocial needs. Like all other social workers within the field, healthcare social workers closely follow the Social Work Code of Ethics as outlined by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) when working with clients, their families, and their communities.

Are there any online social work programs that offer healthcare social work as a specialty?

There are MSW programs that offer health-related concentrations. These may be offered on campus or online. These concentrations may include any of the following titles: Health, Health and Wellness, Health and Mental Health, or Health and Behavioral Health.

However, completing a health-related concentration or attending a program that specializes in healthcare is not required in order to become a healthcare social worker. This is because the skills acquired in Masters-level programs can be applied to a variety of settings, including healthcare settings.

Regardless, there are programs that offer medical and healthcare social work certifications. For example, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) offers a Certified Social Worker in Health Care certification.

Generally, the majority of healthcare-related social work jobs prefer (or sometimes require) social workers to have earned a MSW degree from a CSWE accredited institution. Many healthcare settings also prefer that social workers hold a Masters-level social work licensure. For example, most inpatient medical settings require that social workers hold a MSW and a Masters-level licensure. A MSW and corresponding licensure are typically required in these settings due to the clinical skills needed to work with clients.

However, there are jobs within the medical field that may only require a BSW or other Bachelors degree in a related field. Jobs that entail primarily care coordination and case management are available for social workers with a BSW. These types of jobs most frequently occur in outpatient settings. Social workers with a BSW can also hold jobs as assistants to the Masters-level social workers in many settings.

Are there any BSW programs with healthcare social work as a specialty?

BSW programs generally serve as an introduction to the social work field. The majority of BSW programs accredited by the CSWE use a generalist practice lens, which means that the curriculum encompasses a wide range of topics to give students as broad of an education as possible during their Bachelor’s-level experience.

Therefore, it is uncommon to find a BSW that offers concentrations or specialties. Programs may offer individual courses related to the healthcare system or health and wellness. However, it is most common to find these as concentrations in MSW programs.

Are there any MSW programs with healthcare social work as a specialty?

Due to the growing demand for social workers within the healthcare system, there are many MSW programs that offer concentrations and study specialties related to healthcare.

One example is Simmons University. At the Simmons University School of Social Work, students can earn a MSW degree with a Health Care and Social Work Certificate. This program prepares students for entry into the healthcare field as a social worker upon graduation. This program can be completed as part of the full-time status or part-time status.

A second MSW program with a healthcare-related specialty is the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work. This program offers a Concentration in Health and Wellness, which uses a health and wellness based curriculum that incorporates a social justice lens. Students can earn this concentration while complete the MSW program or the MSW and MPH (Master of Public Health) Dual Degree Program.

The University of California, Berkeley offers a MSW/MPH Dual Degree Program in the Berkeley Social Welfare school. Students who earn both degrees are prepared to work within the healthcare system as a social worker upon graduation. This program focuses on disease prevention, community development, and interventions to use to support individuals in accessing healthcare.

What types of courses may be offered for healthcare-related concentrations?

The types of courses offered for healthcare-related concentrations generally involve a combination of an overview of the healthcare system and courses that highlight the intersection between social work and healthcare.

For example, students earning the MSW degree with a Health Care and Social Work Certificate through Simmons University complete basic courses that align with the MSW degree, such as:

  • Research
  • Racism
  • Assessment and Diagnosis

and also complete courses related to the certificate, such as:

  • Social Work, Health, and Health Care
  • Social Work Practice in Health Care

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The Health and Wellness Concentration at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work offers a diverse curriculum that includes courses on health and wellness, various health and wellness interventions, and integrated health care. Examples of courses include:

  • Evolving Perspective and Trends in Health and Wellness
  • Integrated Health Care: Models and Practice
  • Mind-Body Connections in Social Work Practice

Areas within healthcare social work or related to healthcare social work

There are numerous jobs and settings available to social workers within the healthcare system.

Social workers are commonly found in inpatient hospital settings. These settings can include both medical and psychiatric settings. Examples of medical settings are oncology units, emergency departments, transplant units, pediatric units, and substance use detox centers. Social workers also play an integral role on inpatient psychiatric facilities.

In addition to acute inpatient settings, social workers also work in outpatient settings, such as primary care offices, clinics, and community health centers.

Social workers can also be found in rehabilitation centers and nursing homes.

What do Healthcare Social Workers do?

Healthcare Social Workers have become a vital component of the healthcare system. On a micro level, social workers are essential in providing support for patients and their families, coordinating care, and managing crisis situations. Social workers are also crucial in advocating for more accessible healthcare for vulnerable populations.

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The specific tasks of healthcare social workers vary by job and setting. However, healthcare social workers are commonly responsible for:

  • providing emotional support for patients and their families, which includes psychosocial support in coping with illness and acute crises
  • coordinating additional services and needed resources upon discharge, such as food, housing, and transportation
  • acting as a liaison between patients, families, and medical staff
  • providing brief and time effective treatment, if applicable
  • supporting other staff in managing crises
  • macro and/or mezzo level work with public health to improve health and healthcare within communities

Navigating the healthcare system can be confusing and overwhelming, especially during a time of crisis. Social workers support everyone involved with a patient in managing the crisis that is occurring, instilling hope, and logically preparing for the next steps.

Healthcare Social Work Career Options

There are numerous career options for healthcare social workers. These careers can include work at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels. Additionally, careers range from working with infants and new mothers to providing support for patients in hospice.

Some examples of healthcare social work careers include:

  • Social worker at a children’s hospital
  • Clinical social worker at an inpatient psychiatric facility
  • A substance use counselor as a substance use detox center
  • A hospice social worker