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Social Workers-Essential members of the health care team

September 10, 2013

When we consider the health care experts who treat and care for people in the hospital, we usually think of doctors, nurses, technicians and therapists. Another essential member of the health care team who sometimes goes unrecognized is the social worker.

"Our role is important because we are often able to relate to patients and their families in ways that are helpful for doctors and nurses," explained Sophia Singh, MSW, SCSW, a social work case manager and crisis coordinator at Washington Hospital. Singh has been a social worker for seven years.

"We connect with people to help them at times when they are most vulnerable," she added. "Social work is a beautiful, yet challenging, profession and very rewarding."

The National Association of Social Workers, the largest membership organization of professional social workers in the world, states: "Social workers are highly trained and experienced professionals. Only those who have earned social work degrees at the bachelor's, master's or doctoral levels and completed a minimum number of hours in supervised fieldwork are professional social workers."

Currently, more than 650,000 women and men hold social work degrees in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Social workers make a vital contribution in many parts of the community, including schools, hospitals, mental health clinics, senior centers, prisons, military institutions and corporations, as well as public and private agencies serving those in need.

In the health care field, social workers can specialize in certain areas of care. For example, before becoming a social work case manager at Washington Hospital, Singh worked with people needing mental health care. She has also provided services to people on kidney dialysis and those who have had a kidney transplant.

Other social workers assist people and families in coping with chronic, acute or terminal illness. In hospitals, they help to meet patients' needs after they are discharged, arranging for at home services such as home care or meal delivery.

At Washington Hospital, social workers are available to patients and their families in every patient care unit, including the Emergency Department. All of the Hospital's social workers hold master's degrees and some are licensed, while others are working towards their license, so all are able to provide clinical therapy. In the Emergency Department, crisis intervention is an essential service available through the Hospital's crisis coordinators.

"We are a relatively small group within the Hospital, but we offer help, counseling and support to a diversity of people with wide ranging needs," explained Singh. "We collaborate with the doctors and nurses, and we talk with patients and families to find out what they need and how we can help. We are able to connect them to community resources they don't know about.

"Sometimes, we are there in a crisis or at a very difficult time, and we can sit with people and help them work through hard decisions. The support we offer has an impact on the overall quality of care our patients receive at Washington Hospital. Sometimes, we can even help save a life."

When someone is admitted to Washington Hospital, a social worker can perform an assessment of their personal and support needs, much as a doctor or nurse does for a patient's medical needs. As a member of the interdisciplinary health care team, the social worker's goal is to assist patients and families in coping with the situation they face and solving problems. As they help people identify the issues more clearly, social workers draw on their own in-depth knowledge and understanding of available resources to meet whatever the need may be, from transportation, food, and insurance coverage, to chemical dependency programs, mental health services, skilled nursing facilities and more.

When a person comes into the Emergency Department having thoughts of harming themselves or others, or has a history of mental health problems, a social worker who is also a crisis coordinator can be brought in to help evaluate the patient. The crisis coordinator helps to provide interventions that can include medications and counseling. If needed, transfer to a psychiatric hospital can also be facilitated.

"Each individual we help is unique and every family is in a different situation, so we have to be adaptable," said Singh. "Our work involves educating, counseling, researching, networking, and advocating. We are especially good at networking to make the right connections that will meet an individual's needs."

In the community, social workers are adept at working with some of the most needy people, homeless individuals, veterans, and people struggling with chronic substance abuse and other serious problems.

In hospitals, people tend to think of the social worker as a "fix it" person, but it's not always that simple, Singh pointed out. There are times when even the social worker runs into barriers or problems with availability of a service or eligibility of a patient to receive services.

"But, other times, we find a solution, and this can really make someone's day," she added. "When that happens, it's all worth it."