Health care social workers empower people to make informed decisions about challenging health issues and connect them with vital resources that promote health and well-being. The goal of these professionals is to help patients and their families ultimately enjoy better lives.
Social workers are intimately familiar with the complex, holistic nature of health. Health care social workers take into consideration a patient’s environment — including where they live — as well as their social, financial, emotional and support needs. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 184,900 social workers worked in health care in 2021.
The tasks they undertake may include assessing patients’ needs and connecting them to appropriate services, counseling patients, leading support groups, making logistical arrangements for patients, and helping patients access financial assistance. In addition, they may play an important role in social work research, program development and management, and crisis mitigation. Regardless of their social work specialization — whether they work with children, families, seniors or another population — or work environment, social workers play a vital role in the health care sector.
Earning a Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) degree is a key step on the path to a rewarding career as a health care social worker.
How to Become a Health Care Social Worker
Individuals can take any of several paths to become a social worker. Their desired role dictates the necessary education and training.
Earn a Bachelor’s Degree
An important step when considering how to become a health care social worker is to earn a Bachelor of Social Work (B.S.W.) degree from an accredited university or college. With their B.S.W. in hand, graduates can begin their career in this field. While they cannot work directly with patients, they may impact the field on a macro level, according to the BLS, by improving programs and affecting policies.
Earn a Master’s Degree
B.S.W. graduates who wish to become clinical social workers and directly interact with patients must return to school to earn a Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) degree. This is a vital step in preparing them to handle responsibilities that include:
- Treating patients with behavioral, emotional and mental disorders
- Conducting patient therapy
- Referring clients to various services
- Facilitating support groups
- Collaborating with physicians and counselors
By earning an M.S.W., professionals can step into meaningful leadership roles, such as director of social work at an organization for the underserved or a rehabilitation center.
Complete Supervised Clinical Work
After professionals earn an M.S.W., most states require them to complete supervised work before becoming licensed. At this stage, they may act autonomously and support patients in any kind of environment where social workers practice.
After social workers become licensed, there is a greater likelihood that insurance companies will reimburse them for their services, thereby increasing the number of patients they may serve. Because licensure requirements vary by state, professionals should research the prerequisites pertaining to them.
Work Environments for Health Care Social Workers
Wherever there are patients, there are social workers who support their health and well-being. Because social work is such a broad field with various subspecialties, practitioners work in many different environments, including:
General Medical and Surgical Hospitals
Hospitals employed more health care social workers in 2021 than any other setting, representing 43,120 jobs, according to data from the BLS.
The number of services patients seek at medical and surgical hospitals is vast, from organ transplants to knee replacements. Social workers who practice in hospitals help patients at every stage along the continuum of care. Social workers in hospitals generally specialize in specific patient diagnoses or work with specific demographics. They may also work within the confines of a department, such as oncology, pediatrics or emergency services. Because hospitals are busy, the work is fast-paced and allows social workers to support many different types of patients.
Individual and Family Services
Social workers also make their mark in individual and family services, working at centers for counseling and recovery. Social workers in such roles may have a broad range of responsibilities, including:
- Identifying challenges facing clients
- Offering counseling
- Referring patients to other services
As with all types of social work, success in this environment requires compassion, discernment and exceptional communication skills.
There were 22,040 social workers employed in individual and family services in 2021, representing 18 percent of the social worker workforce, the BLS reports.
Home Health Care Services
Home health care services are a boon for patients with short-term health needs that keep them at home. This could include situations in which a patient is recovering from surgery or injury; entering hospice care; or receiving treatment for a new diagnosis, like diabetes or bronchitis. Bayada Home Health Care, a leading home care agency in the eastern United States, reports that social workers enter patients’ homes to offer services such as:
- Assessing patients for the services they need
- Providing emotional support
- Coordinating care
In this vital role, social workers help reduce readmission rates, inform patients about their condition and treatment, and improve the health care experience for patients and their families.
According to May 2021 data from the BLS, home health care services employed 21,350 social workers.
Nursing Care Facilities
As the American population ages, nursing care facilities—also known as skilled nursing facilities or long-term care facilities—play an increasingly important role in the continuum of patient care. For patients with needs over an extended period of time, these facilities can provide a sense of continuity and enhanced quality of life. Facilities that fit under this umbrella include nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and treatment centers. According to NASW, social workers in this environment can develop a long-term relationship with patients and their families, providing direct services, facilitating programs, referring them to other services, and strengthening the communication between patients and providers.
The BLS reports that the annual mean wage for social workers in nursing care facilities was $50,910 in 2017, a number that varies depending on geographic location, education and experience. Nursing care facilities employed 14,510 social workers in 2017, making up 8 percent of the workforce.
Nursing Care Facilities
As the American population ages, nursing care facilities — also known as skilled nursing facilities or long-term care facilities — play an increasingly important role in the continuum of patient care. For patients with needs over an extended period of time, these facilities can provide a sense of continuity and enhanced quality of life. Facilities that fit under this umbrella include nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and treatment centers.
According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), social workers in this environment can develop long-term relationships with patients and their families and support their health care needs by:
- Providing direct services
- Facilitating programs
- Referring patients to other services
- Strengthening the communication between patients and providers
Nursing care facilities employed 13,510 social workers in 2021, according to the BLS.
Outpatient Care Centers
Outpatient care centers support patients who do not require an overnight hospital stay. This could include patients seeking services such as minor surgery, dialysis or chemotherapy.
Because of the constantly shifting nature of outpatient centers, social workers in this environment undertake many roles, such as:
- Case management
- Patient care navigation
- Therapy and counseling
- Community outreach
- Program management
These social workers may also help patients manage their medications, understand their medical bills and access support services.
The BLS reports that 13,480 health care social workers worked in outpatient care centers in 2021.
Health Care Social Worker Salary
The median annual wage for health care social workers was $60,840 in May 2021, according to the BLS. This outpaces the median wage for all professions the BLS tracks, which was $45,760.
Factors such as geographic location, employer, experience and education level can all influence a health care social worker’s salary. The top 10 percent of social workers in this role earned more than $86,820 in 2021, the BLS reports. Note that in order to act in a clinical capacity, professionals need to have earned their M.S.W. and licensure.
The BLS also breaks down the mean annual wage for health care social workers in specific sectors and settings, including:
- General medical and surgical hospitals — $71,440
- Individual and family services — $50,910
- Home health care services — $67,150
- Nursing care facilities — $55,510
- Outpatient care centers — $65,090
Pursue Your Career as a Health Care Social Worker
If you want to support patients in need, a career as a health care social worker may be a good fit for you. Earning your M.S.W. online at Virginia Commonwealth University, which boasts the highest ranking for a school of social work in Virginia, can help you advance your career and make an impact in the lives of patients and their families.
Explore the next phase of your social work career when you apply and learn how you can make a difference.
Bayada, “The Role of Social Workers in Home Care”
Community Health Network, Social Worker LSW — Outpatient Family Medicine East
HelpAdvisor, Does Medicare Cover Social Workers?
National Association of Social Workers Massachusetts Chapter, Nursing Home Model Job Description
Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Individual and Family Social Services
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, “Life Expectancy: Could Where You Live Influence How Long You Live?”
Sharp Health News, “Hidden Health Care Heroes: Social Workers Are Invaluable”
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Healthcare Social Workers