Few life events cause as much stress as a medical crisis. Thankfully—as was recently illustrated during the first years of the pandemic—a host of medical professionals dedicated to helping people through such crises, sometimes at great risk to themselves, serve to mitigate such ordeals.
But what about crises driven by social problems like unemployment, food insecurity, or domestic violence? It's not easy for people in these situations to seek help. Even if they are willing to, they don't necessarily know where to turn to for assistance.
The challenges compound quickly when medical problems complicate social issues. That's precisely why most hospitals employ social workers as part of their healthcare team. Social work professionals can fill in the gaps related to patient needs and ensure that the health care provided is enhanced by advocacy that provides a different kind of crisis intervention.
It takes a strong constitution and a caring personality to do this work. It also takes a particular set of skills. This article covers the top 12 medical social worker skills. It also discusses developing the skills you need to be a successful and effective medical social worker.
Social work, broadly speaking, is about understanding social dynamics and patterns of human behavior. The goal is to make sense out of problematic situations and formulate plans to deal with them. Even under non-crisis circumstances, this is challenging work. It becomes more so in a hospital setting.
Here's a list of skills invaluable to those in social service. It begins with a number of skills broadly useful for anyone involved in clinical social work, then moves on to some that are specifically useful within the milieu of medical social work.
All social workers key into a client's reactions, understand why they react in a particular way, and respond appropriately. This starts with the ability to recognize and interpret your own cues. This sort of self-awareness is vital to being providing emotional support while still maintaining a pragmatic and professional view.
Active listening often goes hand in hand with social perceptiveness; both involve concentrated attention to the person with whom you are interacting. This requires not only hearing what a person says but also intuiting precisely what they mean and then making sure that they understand that you understand, without injecting your own biases or reactions.
Like social perceptiveness, problem sensitivity requires social workers to recognize the existence of a problem—or even the potential for a problem to develop—based on intuition informed by learning and experience. Clients are not always forthcoming because of their embarrassment, denial, or fear of social stigma. Some extreme situations—domestic violence, child abuse, mental health challenges—can evoke feelings of shame and helplessness. The ability to perceive existing and potential problems quickly and clearly is a crucial first step towards working on a solution.
The ability to deal with whatever problem you may face often requires thinking fast on your feet. Critical thinking means being able to apply knowledge, experience (including work experience) and logic to determine the best course of action in any given situation. It also means being able to view and assess various factors dispassionately and analytically.
You may provide the best advice in the world, but it won't do any good if your clients won't take it. People in distress may be reluctant to accept the help and advice offered to them, either actively or passively. A truly skilled social worker can work with clients to reach a mutually agreed-upon solution that clients are more likely to embrace and execute.
The situations you deal with in social work can be very stressful and draining. Clients may be suffering from any number of crippling feelings: fear, pain, confusion, hopelessness, etc. Each step along the road to managing their situation may seem like a new mountain to climb. You need to be able to convince them each time to keep climbing (patience). For that, you'll need a true sense of what they're going through (empathy).
Now, let's look at a number of skills that are especially valuable to medical social workers and the specific patient care problems with which they tend to deal.
Case management gets to the heart of how physical healthcare and social work are intertwined. Healthcare situations may be more complicated than they appear, stemming from more than a single complaint. Any number of factors—age, environment, socioeconomic status—can influence the problem and may impact treatment. Social workers are uniquely trained to approach client's cases holistically so that doctors can focus on healthcare services.
Like case management, treatment planning involves addressing problems by considering the client as a whole, identifying specific issues and influencing factors, setting objectives, and determining the best methods for achieving them. Social problems are often exacerbated by a feeling of disconnection. A well-formed treatment plan can give the client a sense of inclusion.
Medical social workers assess developing situations in real time, whether it's a personal crisis or a large-scale natural or public health catastrophe. They need to help clients identify their particular challenges, formulate plans to remedy their problems, and execute those plans under often-dire circumstances. That's crisis intervention.
Social work includes clinical psychological and mental health services, but non-clinical social workers also engage these critical skills. That's because it is not at all unusual for psychological problems to coexist with social problems, with one exacerbating the other. Social workers in healthcare settings particularly need to diagnose potential psychosocial issues so they can form appropriate intervention treatment plans.
Mental health refers to an individual's status in regard to having a psychological problem; behavioral health addresses the external actions that the client may be indulging in that affect their condition, such as overeating, substance abuse or even chronic lethargy. It's an important distinction. Getting a client to recognize the dangers of their behavior is the first step to convincing them to re-evaluate it.
Leaving the hospital is generally a positive development, but it doesn't necessarily mean that the work is done. Just as a treatment plan seeks to take everything into consideration, so should a discharge plan seek to fully cover the eventualities in the transition from inpatient to outpatient status. Will the client require some sort of home healthcare, and what role will their family members play? What sort of community resources might be available to them? Will they need some time in a care facility, or even longer-term care in a nursing home? Any necessary follow-up should be planned ahead of time as well. As with other skills listed above, this simplifies processes for clients and helps clients experience a sense of control over their condition.
Even if you are a natural-born social worker, you'll need formal training and education to launch and build a social work career. A bachelor's degree (it doesn't have to be in social work) is a good place to start. If you hope to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), you'll need a license that requires an advanced degree. A Master of Social Work (MSW) prepares you for advanced social work careers and communicates to potential employers your skills in and commitment to the field. The MSW numbers among the educational requirements in many high-level social work job descriptions.
There are a number of fine MSW degree programs out there, including some offered online (Tulane University and Virginia Commonwealth University are two examples of schools with fine online programs). Online learning offers maximum flexibility and convenience, excellent features for busy social workers employed full-time while pursuing their graduate degrees.
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