Reviewed by Dr. Leigh Ann Hewes

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about social work? Child welfare? Family services? While those specialties are certainly amongst the most common, they don’t make up the whole field. According to Professor Leigh Ann Hewes, MSW, of Utica University’s Master of Social Work program, exploring other areas of social work is vital to becoming a knowledgeable, compassionate professional:

“I like to encourage students to accept work or internships outside of areas they want to work in. I like to sort of get people out of their comfort zones. No matter what social work arena you’re working in, it’s going to make you better. It’s going to make you more well-rounded.”

In a recent interview with, Professor Hewes discussed a few social work specialties, how they support different communities, and how a wide variety of hands-on experiences is vital to career preparation.

Having been a licensed social worker for almost 30 years, Leigh Ann Hewes, MSW, has had quite a diverse career. She’s been a medical social worker, case manager, health coach, and specialized in everything from mental health to dialysis. While she’s taught at multiple academic levels, today she shares her expertise by teaching classes in Utica University’s Master of Social Work program. But no matter the class, she emphasizes the importance of fieldwork and learning how to apply broad social work principles to each individual’s life.

Medical Social Workers

For many Americans, health care is a labyrinth and what happens in the doctor’s office is only the beginning. There are lifestyle changes to make, insurance policies to decipher, and plenty of anxiety-inducing health screenings to face in the future. It’s enough to break a person financially, physically, and emotionally.

In fact, the National Institute of Mental Health says people living with chronic illnesses are more likely to develop a mental health condition. And according to the American Cancer Society, 54% of patients say they weren’t prepared to pay for treatment.

Medical social workers, also called health care social workers, help patients and their loved ones navigate this perilous transitional period. Often employed by hospitals, outpatient clinics, and insurance companies, they:

  • Work with patients’ health care teams to create discharge plans.
  • Connect patients with emotional support groups, financial resources, future medical services, and other programs that preserve their quality of life.
  • Help patients fit their hobbies and interests into their post-treatment lives.
  • Explain the implications of medical procedures and health-related issues.
  • Provide counseling on an individual and family level.
  • Advocate for patients’ legal and medical rights.

To Professor Hewes, medical social work is a great option for people who are interested in health care, but not necessarily the medical side of it:

“You can still be involved, but maybe not as involved with the things nurses and doctors are more accustomed to. Actually, I briefly thought about going into nursing and then physical therapy. But ultimately, I settled on social work because I love the advocacy of working in medical settings. ”

So while medical professionals might save a person’s life in the immediate future, medical social workers help them live it out in a positive, supportive environment. As Professor Hewes points out, working in a medical setting can help social workers learn how to accomplish that with just about any population.

Gerontological Social Workers

When people imagine aging gracefully, they think of staying active, social, and healthy in the comfort of their own homes. In the beginning of one’s golden years, this may seem like an easy enough dream to live out. But as friends pass, family members move, and health declines, the dream can become a nightmare.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, almost a quarter of people over 65 are socially isolated. Similarly, socially isolated seniors are at a greater risk for dementia, strokes, falls, heart failure, malnutrition, and a whole bevy of mental health issues. For them, just getting out of bed or getting the mail can be a potentially fatal endeavor.

Gerontological social workers specialize in serving this at-risk population by:

  • Helping them transition to and from hospitals and long-term care communities.
  • Connecting them to social, spiritual, housing, financial, and health-based services. This might include local senior centers and nutrition programs.
  • Implementing emergency response notification systems.
  • Advocating for them in cases of senior abuse and neglect.
  • Providing crisis intervention for circumstances like hoarding, substance abuse, and mental illness.
  • Helping them maintain independence and carry out activities of daily living.
  • Supporting other often stressed caregivers.

Professor Hewes says that in the near future, gerontological social work, a field she has years of experience in, will be more important than ever:

“With baby boomers getting older and what we call the Graying of America, we have a large population of people who are getting older and living at home longer. I think it’s going to open up a lot of doors for social workers in the future. I’ve been doing therapy making sure their families can help take care of them and making sure that older people are able to maintain independence for as long as possible.”

By the US Census Bureau’s estimates, there will be more Americans over 65 than children by 2034. That’s 77 million seniors. For social workers of any kind, experience with the elderly population may prove to be key to their careers and the overall health of society.

Other Social Work Specialties

In her interview, Professor Hewes covered two specialties she has experience in. However, social work career paths don’t end there. For almost every at-risk population, there are compassionate professionals trained to serve their specific needs.

Other social work specialties include:

While each type of social worker has their expertise, their domains aren’t completely isolated. For instance, a criminal justice social worker may have to help people through struggles with substance abuse or trauma. Enrolling in a well-rounded social work degree program is often the key to navigating these interconnected issues.

Common Threads: Hands-on Experience and Believing in Recovery

Because of social work’s intimate, complex nature, Professor Hewes often encounters otherwise confident students who second-guess their abilities:

“I see students who are really nervous about how they’re going to take those theories and ideas they’re learning into the real world. They’ll say, ‘I don’t know how to do this. I’ve never done this before.’”

With people’s wellbeing at stake, it’s understandable why this might be the case. However, Professor Hewes finds that hands-on internship experience does a lot to build confidence:

“When they get in there, it’s usually not as hard as they think. For those people like me, who really just love social work and love the ideals and values of the profession, I think it’s an easier transition because you get out there and you’re like, ‘Oh! I can!’”

At Utica University, Professor Hewes and her colleagues foster this sense of self-esteem through a meticulously crafted curriculum that allows students to practice their knowledge. Like other programs, it helps students prepare for social work licensure, but it’s unique in that students can focus on one class at a time, complete diverse internships, and still earn their degrees in two and a half years.

As impressive as that is, that’s not what Professor Hewes loves most about Utica’s social work program. She’s particularly proud of its focus on recovery:

“The recovery principle says that recovery is possible and attainable whether it’s recovery from substance abuse, mental health issues, temporary life struggles, or grief. Recovery is possible no matter the struggle. We teach that from the very first to the very last class and throughout students’ internship placements.”

Through this commitment to true personal development, social work students can be prepared to do anything from helping patients face a grave cancer diagnosis to keeping isolated seniors connected with their communities. Some may even go on to do both and more. But no matter what specialty her students choose, Professor Hewes and her fellow instructors keep service and compassion at the heart of everything they do.