What's the Role of a Social Worker in Healthcare

social worker in healthcare working with elderly patient
Written by
Lori Fuqua
August 11, 2023

Table of Contents

Want to learn more about social workers and their roles in healthcare? Keep reading to learn all about social workers; what they do in the medical setting, what types of facilities you can expect to find them in, how to become one, what it takes to be successful, how much are their average salaries, and how the profession collaborates so well with nursing that sometimes nurses become social workers and social workers become nurses. 

What's the Primary Role of a Social Worker in a Hospital?

A social worker in a hospital is part of a multi-disciplinary team that collaborates with nurses, physical therapists, occupational therapists, physicians, specialists, patients, and their family members to provide well-rounded care that takes into consideration not only the patient's healthcare diagnosis and treatment but their emotional well-being as well. 

Licensed social workers adhere to a Code of Ethics specific to their profession. These ethical principles include the following: 

  • Service
  • Social justice
  • Dignity and worth of a person
  • Importance of human relationships
  • Integrity
  • Competence

These guiding principles establish a role for social workers in hospitals to be advocates for patients in expressing their needs and desires that extend beyond concrete health data. Here are some examples of the typical responsibilities and tasks of a hospital social worker:

  • Carrying out psychosocial assessment of patients at intake and ongoing assessments during their stay
  • Educating patients and families on important medical decisions, such as advanced directives and power of attorney
  • Guiding a patient’s understanding of a diagnosis and the social and financial implications of it, including insurance, Medicare, and Medicaid
  • Helping patients and families to set up services upon patient discharge for continuity of care
  • Assisting families with obtaining financial assistance when appropriate for medications or medical services
  • Supporting and advocating for patients to participate in their healthcare plan
  • Facilitating communication and understanding between healthcare professionals and the patient and family
  • Counseling families and patients with mental health challenges or referring them for counseling
  • Assisting with securing housing or facility placement for patients who cannot discharge directly home either due to housing issues or health limitations

Do Social Workers Work in Other Healthcare Settings?

As you can see from the list of responsibilities above, the role of social workers is essential in many other healthcare settings besides hospitals. Social worker jobs can be found in skilled nursing facilities, hospice services, assisted living facilities, nursing homes, medical centers, and community health departments.

How to Become a Social Worker

A social worker's education is either a bachelor’s of social work (BSW) or a master’s of social work (MSW) degree from a university. As part of earning a social work degree, most programs require social work students to complete a practicum, which is similar to clinicals for nursing students. 

Social work students work a fixed number of hours in a workplace setting under the direct supervision of a licensed social worker; hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and healthcare departments are common settings to find social work student placements. Like nursing, social work is a regulated and licensed profession. Social workers must pass a licensing exam in their state upon completion of their degree in order to practice. 

What's the Average Hospital Social Worker's Salary?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national average salary for a social worker in 2022 was $64,360 for the year or $30.94 per hour. This data does not distinguish between a master's level social worker or a bachelor's level social worker, which—alongside years of experience and geographic location—influences a social worker's earnings.

These are the five states with the highest average salary for social workers:

  1. Rhode Island
  2. Washington
  3. Oklahoma
  4. Washington D.C.
  5. Kansas

The top five metropolitan areas with the highest average social worker salary are the following:

  1. Santa Rosa, CA
  2. New Haven, CT
  3. Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA
  4. Lebanon, PA
  5. Providence-Warwick-RI-MA

Here are the five nonmetropolitan areas with the highest average social worker salary:

  1. Northeast Oklahoma nonmetropolitan area
  2. Kansas nonmetropolitan area
  3. Southwest New York nonmetropolitan area
  4. Central Louisiana nonmetropolitan area
  5. Southeast Alabama nonmetropolitan area

Finally, general and surgical hospitals were among the top-paying industries for social workers in 2022, showing a national average salary of $70,890 for the year or $34.08 per hour.

What Is a Nurse Case Manager?

Do you think a hospital social worker sounds similar to a nurse case manager? If so, you'd be right to an extent because both occupations provide a lot of patient and family education and support in establishing services, appointments, and placement for patients prior to hospital discharge. For more information about nurse case managers, check out our in-depth nurse case management guide.

Can Social Workers Be Nurses and Vice Versa?

These two professions can coincide in more ways than simple collaboration on a multi-disciplinary team. Nurses with bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN) degrees could earn a master's degree in social work and be a real asset in a healthcare setting. Alternatively, with a BSW or a bachelor's degree in another field, you could apply for a master of science in nursing (MSN) program that is specifically designed for non-nurses. The skills and knowledge of a registered nurse combined with the principles of social work would be an excellent educational background to foster patient-centered changes in healthcare policy and nursing care.

Necessary Skills for Successful Hospital Social Workers

Here are some essential skills social workers should strive to develop:

  • Compassion: The ability to be sensitive to and understanding of the emotional challenges patients and their families may struggle with in the face of health issues is vital for a social worker. Compassion facilitates patience and trust, which in turn allows social workers to better help their patients.
  • Listening: Social workers may be privy to observations and information about patients and their families that may impact directly or indirectly the progression or decline of a person's health; therefore, they must be actively listening to receive these insights, which can help facilitate communication among patients, family members, and healthcare providers.
  • Organization: Much like in nursing, organization is an important skill that can be learned if not already possessed. Case management of a high number of individual patients can mean multiple tasks occurring simultaneously. 
  • Industry knowledge: While a social worker doesn't have to have a nursing background to be successful in supporting and helping patients, a social worker does require an understanding of healthcare-related topics, diagnoses, and industry jargon. This is a learned skill that comes with time and experience.
Lori Fuqua
Blog published on:
August 11, 2023

Lori is a contributing copywriter at Nursa who creates compelling content focusing on location highlights, nurse licensing, compliance, community, and social care.

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