Forging Solutions out of Challenges: A Closer Look at the Important Work of Social Workers


By Kelly Ann Cox-Montalban, M.S.W. and Miriam Rotberg, L.S.W.

Social work has been noted to be a profession of hope fueled by resilience and advocacy. In the United States, there are more than 650,000 of these highly trained professionals who make a difference in the lives of millions of struggling people on a daily basis. With their insight and skill, social workers undertake to problem solve for individuals dealing with some of life’s most daunting and immobilizing tragedies and obstacles. When successful, social workers can, not only help people dream differently, but also help them actualize their dreams.

Due to the nature of the challenges they tend to, social workers are often witness to an incredible level of determination on behalf of families and individuals in their quest to implement a change in their lives. At times, social workers need only to provide advice to direct people to their chosen path. Other times, social workers act as the very life line that provides appropriate resources and important and new life options.

March is National Social Work Month. It is a time to recognize and celebrate the notion that social workers assist the disadvantaged in their fight for a better future despite personal and public barriers to success. With pointed and effective personal and public advocacy, social workers help clients climb towards what is possible rather than simply accepting what the current situation may be. The chosen theme for this year’s National Social Work Month is “Forging Solution out of Challenges”. Indeed, as they confront some of the most challenging issues facing individuals, families, communities and society as a whole, social workers forge meaningful and positive solutions that help people reach their full potential and make our nation a better place to live.

Medical social work is an integral part of the multidisciplinary healthcare team. Medical social workers provide much needed interventions to support patients and their families during recovery from and /or adjustment to illness. A medical social worker is one who offers psychosocial support, case management, psycho-education, counseling and referrals for other services or resources. A medical social worker’s responsibilities include but are not limited to health care administrative and services roles such as: program planning, day to day operations, monitoring of services, media liaison, budgeting, policy development, programs management for health promotion and disease prevention. Through coalitions with various hospital departments, medical social workers work towards system transformation.

At times, there are disciplines within the medical setting that may not value or appreciate the importance of patient autonomy and self-determination. Medical social workers act as gatekeepers preserving patient’s rights to make his or her own decision about goals of care, treatment planning and discharge (if they are psychologically competent to do so). Often, patients make decisions that do not meet the approval of medical professionals; medical social workers may step in at times like these to advocate for the patient’s right to self- determination.

On a constant basis, medical social workers must hone and tap into their assessment and analytical skills. They must be able to confidently and safely communicate using necessary medical language. This includes disease physiology; types of treatment offered as well as ability to quickly and effectively establish a therapeutic relationship with patient.

At every stage in life, one’s health is determined by their behavior and the complex interactions between the social, economic and physical environment they are in. Studies have shown that half of all health care outcomes are actually linked to social determinants. The wider the gap in a given society between health and all other noted factors, the higher the mortality and morbidity rates. As such, any action taken by a social worker to reduce health inequalities can heed untold economic benefits.

The following is a partial list of interventions that medical social workers may perform for their clients:

  • Psychosocial assessment- assessing strength and resilience of the patient, family, and social support system to help the individual function within the community.
  • Family education and crisis intervention- educating the family on the physical and psychosocial needs of its members and ways they can access internal and external resources, as well as mediating familial conflicts.
  • Risk Assessment- assessing risk of self-harm (suicide) and to other (family, violence, elder abuse, child abuse).
  • Financial assessment and fund management- identifying and referring cases for financial assistance.
  • Care Coordination & Discharge planning- ensuring efficient unit operation by working with medical, nursing and other allied health staff, patient and their families to produce high quality work and to develop and implement the post discharge care plan.
  • Information & Referral Services- linking patients and care givers to community resources and health care system.
  • Managing life crises due to acute or chronic medical condition while focusing on improving their mental and physical well-being.
  • Attending administrative meetings, counseling staff, liaising with members of the multidisciplinary team as well as quality data collection and reporting.
  • Accessing in home health care services, arranging for in home medical equipment, providing transportation, referring patients to a wide variety of community social services agencies and finding rehab facilities for further treatment.
  • Working cooperatively with the dynamic changes within the healthcare system.

It is within the role of all social workers to make a positive impact on the life of an individual or family. Social workers know that they cannot cure illness; they can however make a difficult situation easier to bear. Small gestures such as hand holding or taking the time to sit and talk with patients and or families can change lives forever. As Ogden W. Rogers said:“When you do \”it\” right, Social Work is a feeling that is larger than you own life.”


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