How to Become a Medical Social Worker
Medical social workers provide unique and vital social services to patients in the midst of challenging medical issues, often of such magnitude as a terminal diagnosis or a traumatic assault. No matter the challenge, not a day goes by that isn’t filled with the reward of making a significant difference in the lives of others.
A medical social worker offers the support and resources clients need in order to recover from illness or trauma as well as its psychological, emotional and physical consequences. Sometimes this means helping a client with practical tasks such as arranging meals and transportation after a hospital stay. At other times, it involves giving psychosocial support to crime victims, helping law enforcement in child abuse cases or arranging grief counseling. Medical social workers courageously step into these situations and mobilize all available resources to help people recover or live the remainder of their lives with the greatest possible degree of dignity and independence.
Medical social workers are employed in hospitals, hospices and public or private healthcare institutions. They counsel individual clients and their families, facilitate support groups and coordinate short- and long-term healthcare decisions and services. Travel is a routine part of the job, as medical social workers visit patients in hospitals and at their homes after they have been discharged.
A Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work (BSW), Psychology or Sociology may be sufficient for some entry-level social work positions, but is not enough to become a licensed medical social worker. Hospitals and other agencies require a Master’s Degree in Social Work (MSW) from an accredited institution. Candidates who can demonstrate that they have done volunteer work in a social work setting will have an advantage when it comes to getting hired.
In addition to the required coursework in a two-year MSW program, students are required to fulfill 900 hours of supervised training with a qualified medical social worker. The program may be able to arrange an internship at a hospital, hospice, nursing home or convalescent home.
Licensing and/or Certification
After completing an MSW and internship, the next step is obtaining a license in the state where the medical social worker intends to practice. Rules about licensing vary from state to state, so contact the state regulatory board or the Association of Social Work Boards to learn the requirements for your particular state. Many states require a minimum amount of supervised work experience (two years or 3,000 hours) in a clinical setting, such as a hospital, before accepting a license application.
Certification is not required to become a medical social worker. However, a credential, such as those offered by the National Association of Social Workers tells the employer that the job candidate has met a standard of excellence with an accredited institution.
Necessary Skills and Qualities
Qualities required for successful medical social work include compassion, sensitivity to people’s needs and good communication skills. Problem-solving and decision-making skills are also a must, as well as the patience to work with seriously ill clients within a bureaucratic setting.
Opportunities for Advancement
Medical social workers with experience can move into management positions there they will be responsible for supervising other, less experienced medical social workers. The larger the facility you work in, the greater the possibility of advancement. For example, a worker in a large hospital will have more opportunity for advancement than a worker in a smaller nursing care facility.
The average annual salary for medical social workers is $57,000 although the pay range can go as low as $26,710 and as high as $70,390 per year in some settings. Hospitals tend to pay more than nursing care facilities. Medical social workers in California, Washington, D.C. and New York earn higher salaries, though the cost of living in these regions may be higher as well.
Job prospects for medical social workers are promising, especially for those with an interest in gerontology and elder care. As baby boomers age, medical social workers will be needed to formulate long-term care plans for patients, provide education and support for caregivers and meet the needs of older patients with chronic or terminal illnesses.