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All About Medical Social Work

By Katarina Bartel, Social Work Intern, Bay Ridge Center


Social work is an incredibly broad field that interacts with a variety of professions. While social workers are always person-centered, they can influence society at many levels. For example, at the micro level, social workers work with individual clients providing advocacy, therapy, family counseling, and many more individual services. At the mezzo level, social workers operate community-wide interventions such as providing anti-bullying trainings for entire schools. Lastly, social workers can also work at the macro level which most commonly involves developing state or federal policy. Regardless of the specific job setting, social workers are always working towards justice and equity while prioritizing societies most vulnerable populations.

From the National Association of Social Workers (NASW)

Even in the medical setting, social work has a wide array of applications. Social workers can work in hospital settings, nursing homes, rehabilitative care centers, or related home services. Medical social workers commonly address issues such as terminal illness, catastrophic disability, end of life decisions, homelessness, independent living, medication adherence and management, and suicidality. In order to do this, medical social workers will provide an array of services such as preparing patients for life after leaving a residential setting, providing support to clients and family members, discharge planning, psychosocial counseling, grief counseling, case management, and referrals.


Each medical setting has their own method for integrating social workers into the care team. In some instances, all patients will be evaluated by a social worker. In other cases, a physician or nurse will refer a patient to a social worker for an evaluation. If a social worker determines that their services are needed, they will join that patient’s health care team. While physicians and nurses will be primarily focused on the patient and their biological health, social workers will also consider mental health, family dynamics, living environment, cultural background and more as factors relevant to the health of the patient. With a social worker on your care team, you can expect a more holistic treatment experience.


Patients commonly wonder about the additional costs of social work services. Like with many social service agencies, those that qualify for services do not need to pay for medical social work. These social workers are employed by the hospital (or other care setting) and their funding does not rely on patient expenditures.


Another common question that patients ask is regarding the high demand for social work services. Because services are funded by the city, state, or specific agency, demand for services often exceeds capacity. As a result, social workers must prioritize their time based on patient needs. For example, for a social worker at an inpatient hospital, a patient in a mental health crisis will likely take priority over any other task that social worker might be doing.


Overall, medical social workers are an excellent addition to a health care team because they offer valuable perspectives outside of the medical field. Interprofessional collaboration allows for more thorough care to be provided, since social workers often consider health risks that physicians or nurses may not. Moreover, since the social worker also considers a patient’s environment as instrumental to their wellbeing, social work interventions are aimed to provide lasting health outcomes. •

Katarina during a presentation on social work.

Katarina Bartel is a first year social work student at Columbia University School of Social Work. She has a background in neuroscience, special education, and plans to specialize in legal advocacy as a social worker.

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Bay Ridge Center thanks Meals on Wheels America for its generous support through their Covid-19 Response Fund Grants.

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