Clarifying the Role of the Social Worker on the Medical Team

Lisa Vallee

By Lisa Vallee, LCSW

Misunderstandings abound among medical professionals regarding the role of social workers, even among professionals who pride themselves on their involvement with and knowledge of interdisciplinarity. Many professionals believe they understand the function of social workers on their team, but do not fully grasp the technical knowledge and training that social workers possess. By explicating social workers’ knowledge and capacities, I hope to open up new opportunities for interdisciplinary engagement between social workers and their medical teams.

On a medical team, the social worker is typically seen as a resource guru, the professional who knows important phone numbers and works with local organizations capable of supplying basic needs and transportation. Medical social workers are often known to be responsible for discharge planning and coordinating aftercare. But social workers pick up this logistical knowledge over the course of their careers; their education and training prepare them to be more than logisticians.

The social worker possesses an understanding of human behavior and development within a broader social context, and of cultural differences among social groups. The topics social workers are educated on to this end include physical and mental illness, substance abuse, violence, grief and loss, homelessness, poverty, discrimination, aging, and spirituality. One of the central principles instilled in social workers is to pursue social change, particularly for vulnerable or oppressed individuals and groups.

For social workers operating at a systems level, the client may be a larger group, a community of people, or an organization; clinical social workers more typically work with individual patients or smaller groups, and these latter social workers are the ones found on medical teams. In their practice, social workers begin by assessing the level of fit between the client and the client’s environment. Social workers begin their assessment by collecting information about their client, organizing this information, and analyzing it. They carefully listen to the client and help them identify any problems or issues with their situations. They identify their client’s strengths and mobilize those strengths towards dealing with stressors having an adverse effect on their client’s life.

Following their assessments, social workers plan and carry out their interventions. Providing resources and coordinating care is essential to most interventions. However, social workers perform a number of other, crucial functions: they can diagnose and treat mental illnesses and substance use disorders; conduct psychotherapy with individuals, groups, families, and couples using a variety of evidence-based approaches; and work with community groups to build coalitions that work to promote or advance a social cause. In the political sphere, social workers engage in lobbying, testifying, or grassroots organizing to support legislation that advances the needs and rights of vulnerable groups.

Social workers can help clients change dysfunctional patterns of behavior and can improve communication between people. Their knowledge and understanding of human behavior uniquely position them to solve particular medical problems and to provide insight that other providers might lack on critical medical questions. The social worker is a critical player in the health care field and a vital member of any interdisciplinary team.

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