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Social workers play a vital role in every aspect of the community’s health, including schools, hospitals, senior centers, physician practices, health clinics and numerous public and private settings.
Social work is one of the fastest-growing professions in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
March is National Social Work Month, focusing on the many ways social workers empower people and communities to overcome challenges.
The dictionary defines social work as efforts to improve the quality of life for people in the community. But even the “official” meaning doesn’t fully capture the wide range of services social workers offer and their impact on the people they care for.
Social work is one of the fastest-growing professions in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But what exactly does a social worker do?
“What don’t social workers do? Social workers are a conduit to resources. They are often unsung heroes,” says Clinical Social Work Manager at Swedish Medical Center Kathleen Preppernau, LICSW.
“Social workers are advocates, administrators, congressmen and women, researchers, educators, administrators, forensic specialists, medical social workers, child and family social workers, psychotherapists, family therapists, LBGTQIA+ specialists and more," says Temple Jackson, LICSW. “Social work is real life.”
March is National Social Work Month, an annual celebration highlighting how social workers enrich the communities they serve. We talked to Kathleen and Temple, both social workers at Swedish, about the varied roles social work plays in health care.
The Swiss army knife of health care
Social workers help people cope with and overcome the personal, environmental and systemic barriers they face. They provide a wide range of services, according to Kathleen.
“Social workers are like the Swiss Army knives of the healthcare system," she says. “We’re there across the entire continuum of health care.”
“We are grief workers. We are hospice workers. We work with children on the autism spectrum. We are researchers,” says Temple. “We are the rope that holds a society together.”
“I like to think of social workers as team members focused on the non-medical pieces of patients in a medical setting. This means with some patients it’s as simple as setting up a ride home. For others, it could be as complex as obtaining guardianship and finding alternative housing. In the Emergency Room, care can vary from giving bike helmets to kids to completing psychological assessments,” explains Kathleen.
Helping people help themselves
At its core, social work is about giving people the tools they need to build a healthy, well-balanced life. “There are many different subspecialties of social work, including Oncology, Cardiac, and Palliative Care," says Kathleen. “When in doubt, involve a social worker.”
“Outpatient teams tend to focus on care that helps people deal with chronic issues. Their goal is to improve their patient's quality of care to improve their quality of life,” says Kathleen. “In acute care, we're working on Maslow's basic hierarchy of needs. We're looking at where somebody's going to go and assessing how they will get the services they need. We're focused on those immediate problems and transitioning our patients back into the community.”
Social work is a unique type of care that looks at external factors that affect your health like access to food or housing. It helps you handle a wide range of situations and addresses the emotions that arise while you work through them.
“Social workers meet patients where they are. Suppose someone comes in to speak with me about depression or life balance and I notice that they're looking disheveled and their stomach is growling. In that case, I don't press on with questions about depression. I stop and ask, ‘Are you hungry?' before going further. How can I speak with a young mother about being a better parent when she's hopping from sofa to sofa? I've got to address that first,” says Temple.
Who needs a social worker?
“Any patient who is having trouble navigating the health care system or understanding what’s going to happen when they discharge can benefit from a visit with a social worker. So can any patient with an acute psychosocial stressor – including substance abuse, mental health problems, housing issues, abuse or neglect concerns and more,” says Kathleen.
Social workers make a difference. A survey by the National Association of Social Workers showed that 80% of people who had interactions with social workers reported the experience improved their health or the health of a spouse, parent, sibling or child.
Those results are no surprise to Temple, a fourth-generation social worker.
“I was raised to be passionate about the things that people struggle with. The things that keep people small globally that keep people keeping themselves small personally. I became a social worker to help connect people to the tools they need to help themselves,” says Temple.
“I have always believed that we can rise no matter our circumstances. That we can rise even if it’s just to restructure our thinking around a problem,” she adds. “I do not save lives. I do not change lives. I help connect people to the tools they need to change, improve and save their own lives.”
Learn more and find a provider
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.