Medical social workers provide critical services for those who need assistance navigating America’s complex healthcare system. Whether it’s coordinating treatment among a team of healthcare professionals, arranging post-discharge long-term home health, or advocating in communications with government agencies and insurance companies, healthcare social workers deliver much-needed assistance to patients and their families in a time of crisis.
That’s fulfilling work for sure. But fulfillment doesn’t pay the rent, unfortunately. If you’re going to commit to a career in medical social work, you’re first going to want to know how much does a medical social worker make. This article examines that question. It also explores:
Medical emergencies—and even non-emergencies—are upsetting and stressful. They sometimes leave people bewildered and unsure how to cope. We hope a medical professional can step in to identify and solve the problem quickly and inexpensively. Unfortunately, things seldom work out so simply. Patients’ conditions—and their life circumstances—often present complications that require patience and expertise to manage.
Healthcare social worker facilitate consistent and constructive communication and ensure that everyone involved (patient, doctor, healthcare team) has the information they need to address the issue(s) at hand. They make sure the patient understands their doctor, the doctor comprehending their patient’s needs, and the patient and their family know their options in terms of treatment, insurance, and social services.
Medical social workers operate throughout the healthcare system: hospitals, clinics, intermediate care facilities, nursing homes, and hospices. They also help people who receive ongoing outpatient care. Medical social workers support and monitor a patient’s progress and ensure they’re fully informed about their situation and the healthcare services they need. They help patients review their course of treatment, cope with their time in the hospital, plan for their discharge, and, if required, coordinate home healthcare services.
The typical medical social worker works within the context of primary medicine; some specialize in areas like gerontology, substance abuse, and family services. And healthcare social workers not only serve patients. They interact with medical professionals, ensuring the lines of communication remain open in every direction, and also evaluate how the overall system is functioning and recommend improvements.
There are a couple of significant practical considerations:
- A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in social work
- A license to practice or required social work certification
Credentials vary among careers, states, and territories. Licenses include:
- Certified Social Worker (CSW)
- Clinical Social Work Associate (CSWA)
- Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW)
- Licensed Advanced Social Worker (LASW)
- Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW)
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
- Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW)
- Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
- Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP)
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)
Most of these licenses require a Master’s or Doctorate, along with additional coursework or clinical internships. ( )
A survey of 2017 social work graduates by the National Social Work Workforce Study found that social workers with Master’s degrees and Doctorates made substantially more than those with no advanced degree. ( )
- People with MSW degrees made $13,000-plus more than those with only BSW degrees
- MSWs make more in large cities or urban clusters
- People with doctorates earned $20,000 to $25,000 more than people with only MSW degrees
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Becoming a medical social worker requires a combination of education, training, licensure, and certifications.
First off, you need a bachelor’s degree, which can be a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) or a degree in a related field like sociology or psychology. A bachelor’s qualifies you for entry-level social work positions. For advanced roles (and higher salaries), you will likely need a Master of Social Work (MSW). The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) recommends earning one from a program that is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).
One of the notable benefits of pursuing a master’s degree in social work is the required fieldwork, which allows you to gain significant real-world experience in various social work settings. After earning your social work degree, you may need to pass a state exam and be licensed to practice (this varies by state and type of social work).
Certifications can help you acquire expertise in specialized areas of social work, such as alcohol and drug addiction, hospice and palliative care, cognitive therapy, or disability management. Some certifications are obtained with no more than a BSW, but most require an MSW. The Certified Social Worker in Health Care (C-SWHC) certification is open to those who have a master’s degree, meet the supervised experience requirements, and qualify for licensure. You must also provide a reference from a professional colleague and pay relevant fees.
Certifications demonstrate your commitment to the field and your ongoing professional development. Your enhanced skill set (plus years of experience) can make you a more competitive candidate to prospective employers, expand your career opportunities in the field, and enable you to negotiate higher salaries.
All lofty (and reasonable and noble) thoughts of helping people aside, being a medical social worker is still a job. You need to know whether you can make a living doing this work. So, let’s take a look at medical social workers’ salaries.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes that the mean hourly wage for medical social workers is $29.96 and their mean annual income is around $62,000.
Social work salaries vary according to the specific industry. The greatest number of medical social workers serve in the general medical and surgical hospital field—the field with above-average pay, with an average annual income of approximately $71,000. Individual and family services employ the second-highest number of medical social workers, with a significantly lower national average income of $51,000. Overall, the highest medical social worker incomes are in scientific research and development services, with an annual mean salary of about $93,000.
How much you earn as a medical social worker is also determined by your location, since salaries often reflect the cost of living in that area. On a state-by-state basis, it is more expensive to live in California than in New York, which could explain why the medical social worker’s annual mean salary is higher in California ($85,000) than in New York ($62,000). On the other hand, in terms of individual cities, New York City is more expensive to live in than Los Angeles, and the respective salaries for medical social workers reflect that (New York: $82,000; LA: $77,000).
The five states with the highest concentration of medical social work jobs are:
The top-paying states for medical social workers are:
Here are some interesting metropolitan area employment statistics for medical social workers:
While it is possible to obtain a position in social work without an advanced degree, your options are limited without one. Beyond a BSW or related bachelor’s degree, it is well worth earning a master’s and/or certification in the field.
Given the amount of work involved, you may wish to tailor your education to fit your needs, both in terms of how you learn and apply your time. One way is to enroll in an MSW program with online classes. Social work schools that offer online instruction, like those at Tulane University and Virginia Commonwealth University, allow you to learn at your own pace while applying the skills you learn within your community.
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