Health Careers: Healthcare Social Worker

They are a vital cog in how healthcare organizations function

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

A vital cog in how healthcare organizations function, healthcare social workers’ role improves patient outcomes, reduces re-hospitalizations and promotes better patient satisfaction. Among their job duties, the healthcare social worker acts as a liaison between the patient and patient’s family and the resources within the community which can help them. In addition to case management and crisis intervention, they may also help families with insurance questions, provide counseling and help break down barriers to care.

For patients about to discharge from the hospital, healthcare social workers may help set up needed support at home, such as a home health nurse. They may refer the patient to agencies that can help them get the equipment they need and set up transportation to doctor’s visits.

“In the hospital setting, it is a lot of discharge planning to get a person back into their home or the community,” said Brianne Barr, director of social work at Seneca Hill Manor. “It’s making sure they have prescriptions, some type of homecare set up, calling their primary care provider and making sure they have equipment in place. They can initiate a Medicaid process. The turnover of patients is so quick in hospital settings. It tends to be most of what they do.”

Barr added that the social worker also helps maintain communication with the family and the patient, among other duties. The healthcare social worker may screen patients for mental health issues such as depression and substance use disorders.

While the medical team looks more at the health issues, the healthcare social workers look at the complete picture of the patient’s life.


“Doctors have so much they’re doing, especially with the shortage,” Barr said. “Doctors and nurses’ primary focus is care: sending referrals and patient care.”

Healthcare social workers strive to prevent re-hospitalizations and ensure patients have what they need to live safely at home, in assisted living or in a nursing home.

“They help the psycho-social support and counseling,” said Cheryl Cox, licensed clinical social worker and social work executive at the Syracuse VAMC. “They make referrals to appropriate facilities, helping apply for Medicaid, working with insurance companies and working with the family and patients. They also talk about hospice and palliative care at home or in a nursing home or other setting.”

Many facilities employing healthcare social works require applicants to possess the credential of a licensed clinical social worker. Some require a master’s trained social worker; a few may hire registered nurses with the right background. In either case, on-the-job training helps healthcare social workers learn the ropes.

“You learn pretty quickly and gain that with experience,” Cox said. “You’re part of the team working with the doctors and specialists. They’re pretty gracious in helping us understand. In no way are we medically trained, but we help the family understand what the team is saying.”

She said that healthcare social workers should be compassionate, patient and good at communication and negotiation. Patients are usually discharged to complete their recuperation at home or in a rehab facility, so they are still experiencing pain and discomfort.

“When the hospital is full, social workers are really on deck to move patients out of the hospital to have room for the incoming patients,” Cox said. “They have to be able to manage their stress.”

Cox foresees continuing employment opportunities for healthcare social workers to keep pace with the healthcare needs of the aging population and those in need of mental healthcare and to help facilitate additional safe, community-based care.

“It’s a pretty thankless job on the surface,” Cox said. “It’s a revolving door, in and out. For social work, we go into this because we want to help people. In in-patient social work, we’re helping people with significant life changes or transition to hospice. Taking into account their wishes and helping them through that life change is rewarding.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that $45,300 is the annual mean wage for healthcare social workers in the Central New York area.