By James Mielke
Reviewed by Melissa Russiano, LCSW, LISW
Published on September 3, 2021
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the phrase "essential worker" has become ubiquitous, underscoring the value of healthcare professionals. Whether assisting patients with end-of-life planning or directing them to critical financial and social resources, medical social workers often work tirelessly for their clients.
The following guide spotlights the academic steps required to become a medical social worker, the work that medical social workers take on, and their career prospects. These professionals often play a vital role in helping individuals and families manage the emotional load of serious health issues while simultaneously navigating the complexities of the medical system.
Read on to learn more about how to become a medical social worker.
What Is a Medical Social Worker?
Medical social workers offer clients various services within healthcare environments. These social workers provide individuals with social and psychological support when confronting significant medical challenges. Medical social workers act as counselors, educators, and conduits to essential social services.
What Does a Medical Social Worker Do?
Often working in hospitals and other healthcare environments, medical social workers take on a variety of tasks and provide essential services to patients with varying needs. These professionals may help clients locate resources within their communities, evaluate healthcare options, and make end-of-life plans, including supporting patients' loved ones as they make difficult decisions.
Assisting both individuals and families, these social workers monitor emotional and mental health, offer counseling and therapy. They may also help clients communicate concerns and needs to medical professionals. Medical social workers traditionally possess a nuanced understanding of healthcare protocols and clinical social work practices.
Medical Social Worker Responsibilities
- Counseling: These social workers provide compassionate counseling services to individuals managing serious medical challenges. They may also interact with a patient's support system.
- Educating: Informing patients about treatment plans, mental health services, and illnesses is a critical part of a medical social worker's job.
- Performing Psychological and Social Assessments: Social workers help patients manage the stress of severe medical conditions through psychological and social evaluations.
- Providing Resources: Serious healthcare issues can complicate a patient's life. Medical social workers may help individuals find resources like support groups and childcare, as well as assistance with medical bills.
- Advocating for Patients: Medical social workers advocate for patients' interests as they navigate healthcare, financial, and bureaucratic systems.
Medical Social Worker Job Demand and Salary
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 13% growth in social work jobs between 2019 and 2029 — an increase of nearly 91,000 new positions.
According to the BLS, social workers earned a median annual salary of $51,760 in May 2020. Additionally, medical social workers earned a median annual wage of $57,630. Experience also plays a role in a professional's earning potential in this field. According to PayScale, as of August 2021, medical social workers with 20 or more years of experience reported an average annual salary of more than $67,000.
How Do I Become a Medical Social Worker?
The best medical social workers typically possess a solid academic background along with extensive experience in various medical settings. Many professionals in the field begin their careers by securing a bachelor's degree in social work. Additionally, most medical social workers complete a master's degree, which is often a prerequisite for clinical licensure.
Complete a Bachelor's Degree in Social Work
Earning a bachelor's degree in social work can help students secure entry-level positions in the field. This degree also benefits students who plan on applying to master's in social work programs. While a bachelor's degree in social work is a practical way to begin a career, students who ultimately pursue master's degrees in social work can also earn undergraduate degrees in related fields, such as a bachelor's degree in sociology or a bachelor's degree in psychology.
While curricula vary among schools, undergraduate students can expect to complete around 45 credits of social work classes. Additionally, students complete a variety of general education requirements and electives.
While pursuing a bachelor's degree, social work students gain the competencies needed to provide effective and compassionate care while honing critical analytical, problem-solving, and communication skills. Learners often complete courses in social work research, applied social work statistics, and developmental impact of child abuse and neglect. Before graduation, most programs require students to complete a practicum.
Admission requirements can also vary significantly among schools. Applicants can expect to submit official high school transcripts, personal essays, SAT scores and ACT scores, and letters of recommendation. During the application process, many students also complete interviews with prospective schools.
Example Undergradaute-Level Courses
- Ethics in Professional Helping
- Human Behavior and the Social Environment
- Social Diversity and Cultural Understanding
- Social Welfare Policy and Services
- Advanced Social Work Writing
Consider a Master's Program
For most medical social worker jobs, applicants need a master's degree and appropriate licensure. Attending graduate school provides learners with the expertise they need to help patients navigate complex healthcare situations. When researching prospective master's programs, make sure to apply to programs accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.
Most social work master's programs require that degree-seekers complete 36-60 credits of coursework before graduation. In addition to theoretical classes, students typically also gain extensive experience in various clinical settings. Medical social work is not a standard concentration, and students interested in this area should complete their internships in clinical healthcare settings.
Prospective social work graduate students usually hold a bachelor's degree in social work or a related field. Applicants typically submit official undergraduate transcripts, letters of recommendation, and a professional resume. Admission requirements can vary significantly between schools, and some programs favor applicants with professional experience in a human services or social work setting.
Example Graduate-Level Courses
- Diversity and Oppression in a Social Work Context
- Social Problems and Social Welfare Policy
- Human Behavior and the Social Environment
- Policy Analysis and Change
- Micro Human Behavior/Social Environment
Establish State Licensure
Licensure requirements vary by state, and candidates seeking a license must pass examinations administered by the Association of Social Work Boards. State-specific licensure requirements may include additional testing.
It is also common for medical social workers to earn clinical licenses. This type of credential is reserved for master's degree-holders and requires 2-3 years of supervised work in a clinical setting. To maintain licensure, social workers must also complete various continuing education requirements.
Additional Social Work Jobs
In addition to medical social work jobs, a degree in social work and professional licensure can lead to various other careers in the field. Some graduates work with nonprofits as research analysts, while others shape laws and industry practices as public policy advocates. Experienced social workers can also take on administrative roles in various government and nonprofit organizations.
- Substance Misuse Counselor: These professionals provide essential support for individuals with substance use disorders.
- Public Policy Advocate: These workers help shape policy decisions related to homelessness, public safety, and disability programs.
- Community Outreach Educator: These professionals often liaise between communities and nonprofits or government groups.
- Human Services Administrator: These professionals supervise the daily operations of various social service programs.
- Research Analyst: Specializing in social work, these professionals compile research and study data related to their specific field or area of expertise.
Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Medical Social Worker
While individuals with bachelor's degrees in social work can secure some entry-level positions, most medical social workers complete a master's degree as a prerequisite for clinical licensure. For a full-time student, a bachelor's degree usually takes about four years to complete. Full-time learners can often complete their master's degrees in about two years. Licensure requirements may take another 2-3 years to complete.
Medical social workers are specialized professionals who provide compassionate services to individuals in medical environments. These workers often complete internships in healthcare settings. Medical social workers possess a strong understanding of healthcare and medical systems and employ effective clinical social work strategies.
It depends. Specific job responsibilities, dress codes, and work environments determine whether a medical social worker wears scrubs. As these professionals often assist patients with administrative issues, they often wear traditional business attire.
Medical social workers play an essential role in helping clients dealing with life-altering issues navigate emotional and administrative challenges. According to the BLS, medical social workers earned a median annual salary of $57,630 in May 2020. Additionally, the BLS projects 13% job growth for all social workers between 2019 and 2029.
A good job interview can go a long way to securing a medical social worker job. The best candidates usually research the prospective employer while reviewing common interview questions to mitigate any pre-interview stress. Successful candidates also dress appropriately, show up on time, and come armed with thoughtful questions to ask their interviewer.
Melissa Russiano is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice that has organically developed into a specialty helping working professionals. Russiano has a proven track record helping professionals avoid burnout in a unique way that holds clinicians accountable through laughter, tears, blunt (yet very supportive) feedback and quirky analogies that are grounded in solid theoretical research. Russiano practices solely in a virtual setting in the states of California, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. In addition, Russiano is a professor at Simmons University online, imparting her experiences and knowledge in the field to graduate social work students.
Feature Image: sturti / E+ / Getty Images
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