How To Become a Social Worker in Health Care

Social worker visits senior couple in their home.

Like a data-crunching website that can estimate life expectancy by zip codes, healthcare social workers take into consideration a host of factors dealing with the complex, holistic nature of health: a patient’s environment and their social, financial, emotional and support needs. The goal of these dedicated professionals in the health care sector is to help patients and their families live better lives.

Social workers are intimately familiar with the complex, holistic nature of health. Many of these dedicated professionals work in the health care sector, where they help patients and their families live better lives. Specifically, they take into consideration a patient’s environment—like location—as well as their social, financial, emotional and support needs.

The tasks they undertake may include assessing patients needs, counseling patients, leading support groups, connecting patients to services they need, 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 specialization—whether they work with children, families, seniors or other populations—or their work environment, social workers play a vital role in the health care sector.

Steps for How To Become a Social Worker

There are several paths to become a social worker, and the desired job duties dictate the necessary education.

Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

An important step when considering how to become a social worker is to earn a Bachelor of Social Work (B.S.W.) from an accredited university or college. With their B.S.W. in hand, graduates can begin their career in this important field. While they cannot work directly with patients, they may impact the field on a macro level, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (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 their Master of Social Work (M.S.W.). This is a vital step in preparing them to treat patients with behavioral, emotional and mental disorders, as well as to conduct patient therapy, refer clients to various services, facilitate support groups, and collaborate 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 rehab center.

Complete Supervised Clinical Work

After professionals earn an M.S.W., most states require them to complete some supervised work before becoming licensed. At this stage, they may act autonomously and support patients in any kind of job environment where social workers practice. After professionals become licensed, there is a greater likelihood that insurance companies will reimburse their services, thereby increasing the number of patients a social worker may serve. Because licensure requirements vary by state, professionals should research the prerequisites pertaining to them.

Job Environments for Social Work Careers

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 subspecialities, practitioners work in many different environments.

General Medical and Surgical Hospitals

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. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) reports that social workers in hospitals generally specialize in specific patient diagnoses or demographics, such as age or gender. They may work within the confines of a department, such as oncology, pediatrics or emergency services. Because hospitals are busy, the work is fast-paced and affords social workers the opportunity to support many different patients over the course of a day.

According to May 2017 data from the BLS, hospitals employed more social workers than any other setting, representing nearly 48,000 jobs and almost 30 percent of social workers across the nation. In addition, they were the highest compensated in this occupation, with an annual mean wage of $62,510 in 2017, compared with $56,810 for all social workers. Note that geographic location, employer, experience and education level may impact pay rates. In order to act in a clinical capacity, professionals must have earned their M.S.W. and licensure.

Individual and Family Services

Social workers also make their mark in individual and family services, working at health care centers for counseling and recovery. Social workers may offer counseling, refer patients to other services, identify challenges facing clients and more. As with all types of social work, success in this environment requires compassion, discernment and clear communication skills.

There were 22,690 social workers employed in individual and family services in 2017, representing 14 percent of the social worker workforce. The BLS reports that, in this environment, the annual mean wage was $50,630 in 2017. Geographic location, experience and education all influence pay, and clinical practice requires an M.S.W. and licensure.

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 U.S., reports that social workers enter patients’ homes to assess them for the services they need, provide emotional support, coordinate care on behalf of the patient and offer other services. In this vital role, social workers help reduce readmission rates, inform patients and improve the experience for patients and their families.

According to May 2017 data from the BLS, home health care services employed 20,540 social workers, representing 12 percent of the workforce. The BLS reports that the annual mean wage for social workers in this setting was $59,970 in 2017, exceeding that for all social workers. As with all jobs, location, education and experience impact pay rates. Social workers who wish to work directly with patients in home environments must have an M.S.W. and licensure.

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.

Outpatient Care Centers

Outpatient care centers support patients who do not require an overnight hospital stay. This could include patients seeking minor surgery, testing, dialysis, acute care or chemotherapy. Because of the constantly shifting nature of outpatient centers, NASW reports that social workers in this environment undertake many roles, such as case management, patient navigation, therapy and counseling, community outreach and program management. They may also help patients manage their medications, understand how to pay their medical bills and connect with services that can assist them outside of the outpatient care center.

Of the 167,730 health care social workers in the U.S. in 2017, the BLS reports that 11,360 of them worked in outpatient care centers, representing 6 percent of the workforce. The annual mean wage for social workers in outpatient care centers was $57,730 in 2017, a number that varies depending on education level, geographic location, employer and years of experience.

Learn More About How To Become a Social Worker in Health Care

If you want to support patients in need, assuming a leadership role in social work may be a good fit for you. The next step is earning your M.S.W. online at Virginia Commonwealth University, which boasts the highest ranking for a school of social work in Virginia. By earning your degree online through VCU, you can gain all of the benefits of classroom-based studies with the flexibility to learn from your own home. Discover the next phase of how to become a social worker when you apply, and advance your career in this important health care field.