What Certifications Do Medical Social Workers Need?

What Certifications Do Medical Social Workers Need?
Certifications certainly boost one's resume, demonstrating advanced proficiency in a field or skill. However, it is important to note that they enhance rather than replace the required social work licensure to practice. Image from Unsplash
Courtney Eiland profile
Courtney Eiland January 30, 2023

Health care systems require social workers to assist individual patients and advocate for broader policy changes. Certifications can bolster your credentials and elevate your profile.

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Social work practice encompasses varied specialties that serve the needs of individuals, families, communities, groups, and populations. Social work applications can range from public health service to policy advocacy, substance abuse treatment to hospice services.

Advanced education and training can open the door to rewarding career opportunities in social work across these many fields. Exploring certifications can help propel you into even more possibilities.

In 2000, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) launched the NASW Specialty Certification program in response to growing workforce trends toward specialization. Since then, the NASW has added several credentials to its catalog for social workers who meet the education requirements and earn a social work license through the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). Requirements include a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree, at minimum, or a Master of Social Work (MSW) for advanced practice specialty credentials. BSWs and MSWs must be conferred by programs accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).

Medical social workers (sometimes referred to as healthcare social workers) impact healthcare systems across functions and disciplines. They require specialized skills to work as part of a team to meet the needs of patients across varied lifespans. With such significant responsibilities, medical social workers can flow into many subfields. This explains the numerous certifications to choose from within this role.

This article explores the question what certifications do medical social workers need? It covers the following topics:

  • What is a medical social worker?
  • Why obtain social work certification?
  • What certifications do medical social workers need?
  • Is medical social work right for me?

What is a medical social worker?

Medical social workers, typically found in such healthcare settings as hospitals, clinics, hospices, rehabilitation centers, outpatient facilities, and nursing homes, take on varied responsibilities. Duties for medical social workers typically include:

  • Advocating on behalf of patients to government agencies and insurance companies
  • Collaborating with a multidisciplinary team
  • Coordinating patient discharge from a medical care or treatment facility
  • Counseling patients to help them cope with psychological, emotional, or financial concerns related to their medical condition
  • Referring patients or their loved ones to community resources or social services to aid with recovery after an illness or other medical situation

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Why obtain social work certification?

Certifications certainly boost one’s resume, demonstrating advanced proficiency in a field or skill. However, it is important to note that they enhance rather than replace the required social work licensure to practice.

Some employers may require certification, especially for some of the more specific and prominent medical social work specializations. A Certified Social Worker in Health Care (C-SWHC), a Certified Addiction Specialist (CAS), or a Certified Hospice and Palliative Care Social Worker (CHP-SW) may appear in the job descriptions you peruse. If you’re looking to concentrate in one or more of these directions, chances are, you’ll need one of the certifications summarized in this article.

What certifications do medical social workers need?

Medical social workers engage across the healthcare field, whether providing direct or indirect care. While a bachelor’s degree or a master’s level degree can provide you with foundational and comprehensive competencies, adding a certification can give you a leg up in your job hunt.

Certified Hospice and Palliative Care Social Worker (CHP-SW)

NASW offers the Certified Hospice and Palliative Care Social Worker (CHP-SW) to individuals who hold a BSW from an accredited program.

These social workers address the psychosocial needs of patients affected by terminal or life-limiting illnesses. They also assist loved ones and caregivers. The certification, supported by the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO), employs a person-centered healthcare model to provide “comfort, peace, and dignity during life’s most intimate and vulnerable experiences.”

This credential could pair well with a Certification in Thanatology (CT) offered by the Association of Death Education and Counseling (ADEC). CT-certified social workers demonstrate a strong knowledge of death, dying, and bereavement and utilize these skills to assist with end-of-life decision-making and grief counseling.

Social workers with an MSW can seek an Advanced Certified Hospice and Palliative Social Worker (ACHP-SW) credential. This certification confers the ability to provide direct service and adds leadership duties, including education, resource development, advocacy, and policy initiatives. Both the CHP-SW and ACHP-SW credentials require renewal every two years. Although these credentials aren’t required to practice, they show distinction and may lead to higher incomes in more-elevated roles.

Social Worker in Gerontology (SW-G)

The NASW provides the Social Worker in Gerontology (SW-G) credential for bachelor’s degree holders.

The SW-G is one of three gerontology certifications the NASW offers. The Clinical Social Worker in Gerontology (CSW-G) and Advanced Social Worker in Gerontology (ASW-G) each require a master’s degree.

If you’re seeking advanced education in long-term care, the quality of life, and the functional capacity of the elderly, a gerontology certification is a perfect match. In addition, it may pair nicely with an Oncology Social Work Certification (OSW-C) to help counsel cancer patients and their loved ones or caregivers. This certification also requires a graduate-level degree.

Integrated Healthcare Certificate (IHC)

An Integrated Healthcare Certificate (IHC) prepares graduate-level students to work in integrated healthcare settings at the individual, family, group, or community levels. For instance, the certificate program at the University of Pittsburgh prepares medical social workers with a more profound understanding of the intersection between behavioral and physical health.

The University of Michigan offers a Certificate in Integrated Behavioral Health and Primary Care (IBHPC) designed for direct providers who deliver integrated health services focusing on pediatrics, adults, or a combined track.

This certificate can boost the resume of medical social workers, nurses, physicians, psychologists, and behavioral health providers.

Certified Social Worker in Health Care (C-SWHC)

Medical social workers often operate at the micro level, providing services to individuals and families that protect their well-being. They also work at the mezzo and macro levels, advocating for policies that improve equitable access to healthcare services, especially for underserved or vulnerable communities and populations. A Certified Social Worker in Health Care (C-SWHC) is an advanced practice specialty credential that can sharpen your skills and aid in delivering state-of-the-art social work services to improve patient outcomes.

A C-SWHC can pair with multiple certifications. You must hold an MSW to qualify for a C-SWHC.

Alternatively, a Medical Social Work Certificate can serve as a continuing education mechanism for social workers. A BSW is enough to qualify you for third credential. Note, however, that it does not count toward certification or licensure as the C-SWHC does.

Diplomate in Clinical Social Work (DCSW)

A Diplomate in Clinical Social Work (DCSW) represents clinical social workers’ highest level of expertise and excellence. This highly coveted and globally recognized credential, established in 1986, distinguishes clinical social workers by demonstrating advanced knowledge and experience in:

  • Assisting patients with their mental, emotional, and behavioral health
  • Diagnosing, treating, and preventing psychosocial dysfunction, such as emotional or mental disorders
  • Performing psychotherapy and counseling
  • Advocating for clients

A DCSW must be renewed every two years. Numerous eligibility requirements include a current NASW membership, an MSW from a CSWE-accredited program, a minimum of 4,500 hours and three years of documented clinical work experience within the past ten years, an active clinical social work license, colleague references, and 30 hours of post-degree continuing education activities. This esteemed credential is popular among licensed clinical social workers (LCSW).

Certified Addiction Specialist (CAS)

An increased substance use and overdoses during the COVID-19 pandemic has made the Certified Addiction Specialist (CAS) credential more essential than ever. The CAS, offered by the American Academy of Health Care Providers in the Addictive Disorders, is the most comprehensive credential in addiction treatment. This credential is open to counselors, medical doctors, nurses, and psychologists as well as to medical social workers.

The NASW also offers the Certified Clinical Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drugs Social Worker (C-CATODSW) credential for MSW degree holders.

Certified Social Work Case Manager (C-SWCM)

The Certified Social Work Case Manager (C-SWCM), provided by the NASW, confers the necessary case management competencies at both the client and system levels. Furthermore, while many other certifications focus on the medical model, this credential focuses on the biopsychosocial model, using a “Person-in Environment” perspective to assess strengths and challenges within a systems framework.

Individuals with an MSW are eligible for the Certified Advanced Social Worker Case Managers (C-ASWCM) to further their professional learning.

Certification in Forensic Social Work (CFSW)

A Certification in Forensic Social Work (CFSW) credential combines medical social work with criminal justice social work. This field shares some similarities to the social worker’s role within Child Protection Services (CPS). However, forensic social work also deals with child abuse or domestic violence, juvenile or adult justice services, and other criminal and civil legal issues.

Is medical social work right for me?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), more than 708,000 social workers practice in the United States. Of those, medical social workers represent approximately 179,500 employees, with an 11 percent projected growth through 2031.

If you have active listening and critical thinking skills coupled with empathy, patience, and compassion, pursuing medical social work could steer you in the right direction toward a fulfilling career. Those essential skills will require fine-tuning through comprehensive coursework and supervised experience—available through an MSW program. In addition, some MSW programs, like Tulane University or Virginia Commonwealth University, offer flexible online learning, perfect for full-time working professionals.

While education through an MSW program can prepare you for advanced roles, certifications can further demonstrate your commitment to professional learning. This one-two combo can increase your chances of landing the position you seek in the medical social work practice.

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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.

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