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The Role of Social Work in Public Health

November 10, 2023

From stopping the spread of disease to promoting a healthy environment, the efforts of public health professionals help to improve a community’s quality of life. Social workers’ focus on helping people enhance their well-being and access equitable care makes them natural allies in advancing public health goals.

By providing educational opportunities to people about healthy practices, monitoring the quality of treatment they receive and working to resolve their health care concerns, social workers address key public health issues. 

In 2021, 179,500 of the nation’s 708,100 social workers — about 25 percent — focused specifically on health care concerns, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Additionally, while the BLS projects stronger than average employment growth for social workers overall between 2021 and 2031, it predicts even greater job growth for health care social workers.For individuals interested in becoming a social worker, exploring the role of social work in public health is a great way to learn how social workers can improve the health of communities.

History of Social Work in Public Health 

Public health refers to efforts to help a group or community of people prevent disease, improve overall health and live longer. Social workers’ efforts at both the micro and macro levels support public health.

Social workers use direct interventions as well as referrals to services to assist people in managing their health and in addressing the issues that can affect one’s overall quality of life. The social and environmental factors that can affect health, such as poverty and inadequate housing, are called social determinants of health (SDOH). Social workers also advocate for policies and lead research to address SDOH at the system level.

Evolution of Public Health and Social Work     

The present-day iterations of public health and social work have their roots in the early 20th century. At that time, efforts to improve sanitation and lower the risk of disease outbreaks led to the first public health programs. 

As these efforts evolved, public health departments were established to coordinate programs designed to address these challenges and provide immunizations. Evidence soon emerged that vaccinations were effective in protecting the public from severe illness and death from diseases like diphtheria and smallpox. 

At the same time, the social work profession was growing in prominence, rooted in helping people address their needs to improve their social, emotional and physical well-being. Even as early health-focused social workers provided services primarily in hospitals, they recognized the role that social factors played in their efforts to improve the health of individuals and the community at large. 

Social workers’ early public health efforts included coordinating maternal and child health programs and directing trauma and disaster responses following World War I and World War II. Increasingly, social workers assumed roles in public health departments, where they addressed not only health concerns but also the social inequities that can lead to them. 

Public Health and Social Work Today    

In the 21st century, the role of social work in public health has become even more prominent. Social workers address public health concerns through direct assistance, referrals and advocacy. They help people in a broad range of medical and community settings. 

At hospitals, for example, social workers often advocate for patients, helping to ensure they receive the appropriate care and make informed decisions about their treatment. A recent trend has placed social workers in public libraries to advance public health. These social workers complement the services of librarians, helping patrons find resources to address issues related to their well-being — such as housing, child care or substance misuse treatment.

The services that today’s social workers provide make an impact on public health in the following ways:

  • Clinical assistance: Offering individual and family support and therapy
  • Administration and advocacy: Working to build capacity for public health support services
  • Social determinants of health: Supporting services that advance human rights, equity and anti-poverty measures
  • Health education and promotion: Sharing information about issues like disease management and child welfare

Health Education and Promotion in Social Work 

A key role of social workers, particularly those specializing in health care and wellness, is outreach to communities, with an emphasis on health education and promotion. These efforts help people gain control over their own health by learning and practicing healthy habits. Health education and promotion initiatives advance public health and social work goals related to:

  • Equity: Offering opportunities for all people and populations to engage in healthy behavior
  • Advocacy: Promoting the practices and policies that contribute to good health
  • Collaboration: Integrating the efforts of different health care professions to support people’s well-being

Health Education and Promotion During Disasters  

Social workers play an important part in providing health-related information during disasters and other crises — a role that took on even greater urgency during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since emerging in 2020, the coronavirus has left underserved and vulnerable communities struggling with the health, social and economic disruptions it caused. Social workers have collaborated with health care professionals to educate the public and advocate for health and safety precautions, vaccinations and funding.

These health education and promotion efforts are in addition to social work services like mental health counseling and coordination of treatment and support. During the pandemic and other crises, social workers have connected people to services that can assist them with challenges such as employment and food security.

Health-Focused Social Work Careers 

All social workers help people with difficulties that can affect their health and wellness, from securing housing to finding employment. But many social workers, especially those who have advanced to clinical roles, specialize in working specifically with people who have health concerns — whether they’re concerns about health care overall or those focused on a single issue like their mental health or substance misuse. 

Social workers who specialize in health care issues are responsible for:

  • Counseling and other types of direct care
  • Helping patients manage their medical conditions
  • Collaborating with health care providers to coordinate services
  • Assisting individuals and families with navigating the health care system

Health Care Social Workers

Health care social workers help clients understand a medical diagnosis and how to navigate its impact on their lives. They sometimes specialize in working with certain populations, such as older adults or those in hospice care, to address their health care issues. Their responsibilities can include:

  • Helping patients transition from hospital care to home treatment
  • Referring people to support groups that can help them manage their conditions
  • Educating physicians and other medical professionals about the mental and emotional impacts of physical illness
  • Assisting with health care planning, policy and administration

Mental Health and Substance Use Social Workers

Social workers who specialize in mental health and substance use typically are licensed clinical professionals. They assess and treat people experiencing mental or emotional problems or those who struggle with addiction. 

The following are among this role’s responsibilities:

  • Providing individual and group therapy
  • Providing assessments and/or diagnostic evaluations to inform treatment planning and recommendations regarding mental health or substance use treatment
  • Collaborating with other health care providers to establish effective treatment plans
  • Offering services such as support groups and addiction recovery programs
  • Counseling clients’ family and friends on how to cope with their loved one’s mental health or substance use issues

Salary and Job Outlook for Health-Focused Social Workers

Health-focused social workers’ salary and job outlook projections for the next several years outpace that of all social workers, according to the BLS. Population changes and increasing demands for treatment are driving the growth of health-focused social workers’ employment.

Health Care Social Worker Salary and Job Outlook   

In May 2021, health care social workers had a median annual salary of $60,840, according to the BLS. By comparison, the median annual salary for all social workers in May 2021 was $50,390, while the median annual salary for all occupations the agency tracks was $45,760.

Social workers who specialize in health care are expected to see employment growth of 11 percent between 2021 and 2031, the BLS reports, more than double the average for all occupations. The agency projects the need for nearly 20,000 additional health care social workers during that time. The nation’s aging population will require new medical treatments and medications, and older adults and their families will need social workers’ support to adjust to these changes.

Mental Health and Substance Use Social Worker Salary and Job Outlook

The median annual salary for social workers specializing in treating mental health issues and substance misuse was $51,240 in May 2022, according to the BLS. 

The agency projects 11 percent job growth, approximately 13,300 new jobs, for these social workers between 2021 and 2031. This expected growth is attributed to more people seeking treatment for mental health and substance use concerns. Also driving the demand for these social workers is the growing trend toward placing those with drug offenses into treatment in lieu of incarceration. According to Behavioral Health Workforce Projections, there has been a 15% increase in demand for licensed addiction counselors and 13% increase in demand for mental health counselors. Social workers that pursue licensure in their state are qualified to provide both substance use and mental health counseling.

What Is Public Health Social Work? 

Social workers who wish to focus on health care with a wider lens can specialize in public health. Public health social work marries public health’s areas of emphasis with those of social work through efforts that:

  • Focus not only on individuals but also on communities
  • Incorporate epidemiologic theories and practices to determine how and why illnesses occur
  • Address the social and economic factors and past traumas that can be the root causes of poor health
  • Prevent disease and encourage healthy behaviors
  • Advocate for the well-being of all populations — particularly those in vulnerable groups such as children, racial and ethnic minorities, and those living in rural areas
  • Combine clinical skills with advocacy and other support to improve people’s health
  • Help people to be healthy and active throughout their lives
  • Educate communities about the importance of healthy lifestyles

The Role of the Public Health Social Worker 

The impact of social work in public health is made manifest in the role of a public health social worker. These social workers aim to:

  • Empower people through health education and support
  • Establish policies and programs that support individual and community health
  • Facilitate community partnerships to address health concerns
  • Integrate primary and behavioral health care
  • Ensure the effectiveness of health policies and services

Many public health social workers advance these goals by working for local, state and federal government agencies. Other common employers of public health social workers include health care facilities, such as hospitals and residential care centers, and community organizations, including those focused on issues like poverty and homelessness.

Public Health Social Worker Responsibilities

With a scope of work that can include individualized services as well as community advocacy, public health social workers can have a broad range of responsibilities. Among the duties that are common for public health social work professionals are:

  • Conducting community outreach to determine the social, economic and health care services that people need
  • Providing direct clinical assistance or connecting people to services that help them overcome their challenges
  • Leading programs to promote disease prevention and healthy lifestyles
  • Monitoring clients’ progress in managing their health issues
  • Engaging in research and analysis on community health, and the factors that can affect it
  • Coordinating evidence-based practices to keep communities healthy
  • Training health care professionals and others on the impact of social injustice and health inequities on public health 
  • Advocating for policies and practices that advance public health

Public Health Social Worker Salary 

The compensation data source Payscale reports that the median annual salary for public health social workers was about $54,200 in February 2023. However, this figure serves as a baseline. Factors such as level of experience and location can affect individual salaries.

How to Become a Public Health Social Worker

Given that it combines the focuses of public health and social work, becoming a public health social worker requires knowledge related to both fields. For those interested in pursuing such a role, the following are some key steps for qualifying, from education and skills to licensing and renewal:

Public Health Social Worker Education 

Social workers typically hold master’s or doctoral degrees and are licensed by the state(s) in which they practice.

Bachelor’s Degree 

For entry-level, nonclinical positions, a bachelor’s degree typically is the minimum requirement. Bachelor of Social Work (B.S.W.) programs generally teach students about foundational topics such as:

  • Social work ethics
  • Diverse populations
  • Social welfare policy, which establishes government services providing basic needs

B.S.W. programs also require supervised field education or internships.In most cases, aspiring social workers who want to earn a Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) can hold a bachelor’s degree in another area — though degrees with a focus on public policy, psychology or social sciences are especially helpful. For those who want to pursue public health social work, an undergraduate degree in public health also can provide a good foundation.

Master’s Degree

Social workers in advanced roles, including clinical roles that involve diagnosing and treating mental health issues, need to hold a Master of Social Work degree. An M.S.W. is a prerequisite for clinical social work practice.

Clinical social workers also must hold a state license that typically allows them to conduct individual and group therapy and develop behavioral or coping strategies for clients.

To prepare students for clinical roles, M.S.W. programs generally focus on assessment, diagnosis, and counseling theory and practice. These programs also teach skills in leadership, advocacy and administration. M.S.W. programs offer supervised field education as well.

Public Health Social Worker Skills 

Gaining skills that apply to both social work and public health is also an important step on the path to becoming a public health social worker. Helpful skills for the role include:

  • Communication: To discuss clients’ challenges with them and share information with the public
  • Organization: To manage multiple clients and projects
  • Problem-solving: To identify health challenges and how to overcome them, particularly complex issues rooted in the social determinants of health
  • Compassion: To practice empathy and patience in helping people cope with their problems
  • Cultural competency: To ensure that public health strategies address the unique needs of different populations
  • Collaboration: To partner with individuals and organizations in enhancing community health

Public health social workers also need knowledge of epidemiological methods to collect and interpret public health data, as well as an understanding of health care systems, policies and regulations. Additionally, skills in crisis intervention — providing mental health support in emergency situations — are associated with higher pay for public health social workers, according to Payscale.

For students interested in a dual degree M.S.W. and Master of Public Health, that option is available at VCU through the on-campus program format. Contact for more information. 

Public Health Social Worker Experience

Public health social workers don’t have to be clinical professionals. But for those who want to pursue state licensing as a clinical social worker, a certain number of hours of supervised clinical experience is required after graduating from an M.S.W. program. Although the length of this training varies by state, it can last for several years. All social workers interested in careers in public health or other health-related areas can benefit from gaining experience in health care or public health settings.

Public Health Social Worker Licensing 

Clinical social workers must be licensed by the state where they practice. While licensing requirements vary, states generally require clinical social workers to earn an M.S.W. degree and then gain supervised clinical experience. They also must pass a clinical exam. 

State licensing typically entails periodic renewal, which may require additional experience or education.

Advance Public Health Through Social Work

The role of social work in public health has never been more important. Social workers are critical to advancing national and global efforts designed to improve the well-being of people and the communities they live in. If you’re ready to advance your knowledge of the social and economic factors that can affect health — and how to address them — explore the Virginia Commonwealth University online Master of Social Work Program format.

The program can equip you with the skills you’ll need for a leadership role in social work, whether you’re interested in offering clinical services or serving in an administrative or advocacy-focused role. The program’s online format allows you to study from anywhere while also participating in field education close to home. 

Discover how VCU’s M.S.W. online format can help you achieve your career goals in social work.

Reviewed by Kathleen M. Korndoerfer, M.A., LPC.*

*Kathleen Korndoerfer, M.A., is a licensed professional counselor with over 10 years experience in the fields of mental health and social work. Kathleen currently practices in Colorado and specializes in the treatment of PTSD & trauma-related disorders and child and adolescent counseling.

Kathleen Korndoerfer, Licensed Professional Counselor, Montrose, CO, 81401 | Psychology Today