The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) refers to medical and public health social workers as health care social workers and makes distinctions for gerontological social workers and palliative care social workers. All employment and salary data derives from BLS unless otherwise stated.
Social workers in the medical field assist patients who have experienced an injury or are facing a serious illness. They help patients understand their diagnosis and how it may impact their lives. Medical social workers can connect patients with resources and programs that can assist them in adjusting to their new lifestyle. They may aid in making housing arrangements or selecting healthcare providers. Some public health social workers help doctors and other health care professionals understand the emotional and mental impact disease, illness and injury can have on a patient.
Some medical and public health social workers specialize in gerontology or palliative care. Gerontological social workers aid the elderly and their families to find services that provide benefits to seniors, as well as make arrangements in the event that their loved one can no longer care for him- or herself. Palliative care social workers work with patients who have been diagnosed with chronic and terminal illnesses. They help patients and their families emotionally accept the situation. Palliative care social workers focus on easing pain and suffering and connect clients and their families with support groups and grief counselors.
Medical and public health social workers may work in hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, military hospitals or private practices. They often spend a substantial amount of time away from the office while visiting with patients or coordinating with service organizations. Many social workers keep weekend and evening hours to help accommodate their clients’ schedules.
The work can be emotionally taxing, as medical social workers interact daily with those whose lives are irrevocably changed or may be coming to an end.
Most entry-level social work positions require that candidates have earned a bachelor’s degree in social work. Clinical social workers typically must have a master’s in social work. All states require some form of licensure or certification for clinical social workers, although specifics vary by state.
Beyond academic qualifications, those interested in social work should also be compassionate individuals with strong listening, problem-solving and time management skills. Social workers solve problems for their clients, so they must possess the skillset to assess client strengths and weaknesses and have the ability to construct practical action plans.
Salary and Outlook
Employment of health care social workers is expected to grow much faster than average. At a projected growth rate of 34 percent, health care social work is the fastest growing sector in social work. As of May 2010, the median medical social worker salary was $47,230. Public health social workers in hospital and home health settings typically earn more than those who work in other sectors of social work.