How to Become a Hospital Social Worker

How to Become a Hospital Social Worker
Hospital social workers help patients and their families manage the challenging and costly experience of hospitalization. Image from Unsplash
Eddie Huffman profile
Eddie Huffman March 6, 2023

Not everyone in a hospital wears scrubs. Some, like hospital social workers, assist with the endless administrative and communication duties that keep patients calm and informed, and the hospital running smoothly.

Article continues here

Going to the hospital can be terrifying. Whether someone has been in a car accident, suffered a heart attack, or needs a new knee, chances are they’d rather be almost anywhere else. Even going to the hospital to have a baby can deliver a mix of joy, pain, and fear.

Hospital social workers help people cope with pain, fear, and uncertainty. They work with patients, as well as their loved ones, to acclimate them to an unfamiliar environment and get the resources they need during and after their hospital stay.

In this article we’ll look hohw to become a hospital social worker by answering these questions:

  • What do hospital social workers do?
  • Why become a hospital social worker?
  • How do I become a hospital social worker?
  • What’s a typical day for a hospital social worker?
  • What are the most challenging aspects of hospital social work?
  • What are the most rewarding aspects?
  • How much do hospital social workers make?

What do hospital social workers do?

Hospital social workers can help ease the strain of a hospital visit or stay.

“Medical social workers are responsible for integrating care with the patient’s personal life and support systems, arenas that do not fall under the expertise of doctors,” explains the American Journal of Managed Care. Their workload includes “assessing the impact of all social, financial, emotional, cognitive, environmental, financial, and other support needs of the patient, communicating these within the system and to external systems such as in-home care, and establishing plans for continued care and well-being.”

Responsibilities may include:

  • Interviewing patients, loved ones, and caregivers about their backgrounds, needs, options, and resources
  • Helping patients and their caregivers set goals and make plans
  • Counseling patients on how to cope with injuries or medical conditions
  • Helping patients connect with emotional or financial resources
  • Serving as patient advocates
  • Addressing crisis situations
  • Helping assess client needs and developing treatment plans
  • Investigating cases of child abuse or neglect and taking action if necessary
  • Making referrals to community, social service, educational, or work programs
  • Assisting with patient discharges and helping them prepare to return home or transfer to a different care facility

Many patients only spend a night or two in the hospital, meaning social workers must get the information they need and take any necessary action on a tight deadline.

“You have to be able to help patients determine their next steps in just one or two meetings,” says Renee Michelsen, a clinical associate professor of social work at the University of Southern California’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.


“I Want to Be A Social Worker!”

University and Program Name Learn More

Why become a hospital social worker?

Social work ranks high among the helping professions, and hospital social workers help people in some of their most vulnerable moments.

“It is a great role for someone that wants to have direct patient care that is not clinical in nature,” observes the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science. “Compassionate people that are good listeners, detail oriented, and great at communicating may enjoy a career as a medical social worker.”

Reddit user owlthebeer97 puts “never boring” among the reasons she enjoys her job: “You are the expert in what you do, and lots of other clinicians to assist you. You learn so much about medical conditions, insurance, community resources. You get to help people who are in an acute crisis and sometimes make a big difference in their life.”

How do I become a hospital social worker?

Most hospital jobs require a bachelor’s degree in social work, at minimum. Licensing requirements vary from state to state. Some hospitals require a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree. Both an MSW and certification may increase your ability to land the job of your choice.

Indeed lists a handful of key skills for a hospital social worker:

  • Compassion
  • Patience and understanding
  • Supportive disposition
  • Counseling experience

Schools offering concentrations or certificate programs in healthcare social work include:

What’s a typical day for a hospital social worker?

Veteran hospital social worker Sheila Singleton outlined a typical workday in a Quora post: “Working in a hospital setting is different from most social work jobs. The culture and atmosphere are surrounded by sickness, sadness, and triumph.”

A typical day depends on what part of the hospitalone works in, such as the emergency room or intensive care unit, Singleton writes. In her job on a medical-surgical unit, she starts her day by checking messages and completing paperwork from the previous day. Then she checks the hospital census to see which patients had been admitted and discharged. Up next: rounds, in which Singleton checks in on patients along with a team that might also include doctors, nurses, and physical and occupational therapists, among others.

“My role was to focus on patients who were ready for release and to ensure it is safe for them to go home,” Singleton writes.

She might line up accommodations in another care facility, such as a nursing home or rehabilitation center. Patients returning home might need her help arranging for specialized services such IV antibiotics or home physical therapy. Such services might require prior authorization from an insurance company, another responsibility that a hospital social worker might handle.

Another set of rounds might involve meeting new patients, providing counseling, dealing with complaints, managing crisis situations, and resolving disputes between the medical team and a patient and their support network. The day would wrap up with additional paperwork.

“Have you noticed I did not mention lunch?” Singleton writes. “My lunchtime was scheduled for 1 p.m. However, I found myself having lunch at 3 p.m. or on my way home at 5 or 6 p.m.”

What are the most challenging aspects of hospital social work?

While helping people can prove very rewarding, hospital social workers also face many challenges in such an intense, high-stakes environment. Some of the biggest challenges include:

  • Dealing with demanding, stressed-out patients, families, and staff
  • Facing emotionally draining situations, including disease, abuse, and death
  • Delivering bad news
  • Heavy caseloads and long hours

What are the most rewarding aspects?

The rewards of hospital social work can make the challenges easier to bear. Those rewards include:

  • Helping people resolve crises and difficulties
  • Doing stimulating work that rarely gets boring or repetitive
  • Working with intelligent, skilled people
  • Gaining a broad range of experience and skills
  • Developing strong bonds with coworkers

“I cherish the opportunity to help clients feel less alone,” said Elizabeth Kelly, a hospital social worker in Washington, D.C. “By educating them and normalizing their experiences, I get to witness moments in personal growth. There is nothing better than seeing someone not just survive, but thrive.”

How much do hospital social workers make?

Medical social workers who work in general medical and surgical hospitals make an annual mean wage of $71,710, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Those who work in individual and family services earn just under $51,000 annually, while those employed in home healthcare earn just over $67,000 per year. Among the five states with the highest employment levels for healthcare social workers, the annual mean wage ranges from $58,420 in Florida to $84,690 in California.

The job outlook for social workers in general looks good for the next few years. The BLS projects growth of nine percent from 2021 to 2031, faster than the average for all occupations.

Questions or feedback? Email

About the Author

Eddie Huffman is the author of John Prine: In Spite of Himself and a forthcoming biography of Doc Watson. He has written for Rolling Stone, the New York Times, Utne Reader, All Music Guide, Goldmine, the Virgin Islands Source, and many other publications.

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

To learn more about our editorial standards, you can click here.


You May Also Like To Read

Categorized as: CounselingSocial WorkSocial Work & Counseling & Psychology