The healthcare system is confusing — for nearly everyone — and the experience becomes more frightening and unfamiliar when you are diagnosed with a serious disease and don’t understand how to get treatment or how to pay for it all. While doctors take a pledge to “do no harm,” plenty of patients get chewed up and spit up by the healthcare system itself because administrators, insurers and other professionals within healthcare make no such oath.
Fortunately, there are medical and healthcare social workers. These trained professionals are meant to step in to assist clients in accessing proper health care and navigating the system safely. Read on to learn more about the role of a healthcare social worker — and whether you need one to help you today.
Goals of a Healthcare Social Worker
All social workers strive to improve individual outcomes to improve the health and stability of a community overall. Other social workers spend time with children and families, with those suffering from addiction, with the elderly and with other at-risk populations, helping them make good choices for their futures. For example, substance abuse social workers might help clients find rehabilitation facilities or connect with 12-step groups; then, social workers might assist them in finding stable employment or regaining custody of children.
Given this, you might expect that healthcare social workers focus on those currently involved with the health care system — and you’d be correct. For the most part, healthcare social workers inform patients of their rights, which include the right to be treated with dignity, the right to make their own healthcare decisions, the right to ask questions, the right to know how much treatments cost and the right to access of their medical information. If you struggle to understand what you can and cannot do in medical scenarios, you might request a healthcare social worker.
However, explaining rights isn’t a healthcare social worker’s only goal. Social workers can also act as a patient advocate, offer advice, refer patients to certain facilities or programs or assist patients in paying for their medical treatments. Some healthcare social workers work in public health, providing educational classes on certain health-related issues, like childcare, HIV, cancer or Alzheimer’s management. Ultimately, a healthcare social worker wants to ensure that patients understand their options, seek appropriate treatment and emerge from the healthcare system happy and healthy.
Training of a Healthcare Social Worker
Just as you should be wary of so-called doctors who lack certain credentials — like a doctoral degree — you should be careful only to trust social workers with the right credentials. Social workers must have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in a related area, most often social work but potentially sociology, psychology, public health or political science. Most social workers return to school for their master’s, perhaps completing an online social work degree to gain real-world experience while studying. This is especially true within specializations like medicine and healthcare social work, which pay slightly better and have greater demands in terms of knowledge and skill. If you are assigned a social worker, you can be certain of their education and expertise, but if you seek a social worker yourself, you might inquire about their training.
How to Use Social Work Services
In many social work fields, struggling individuals and families are often assigned social workers to help them navigate the world. For example, parents who have their children taken due to unsafe conditions might have social workers appointed to help them navigate the legal system to regain access to their kids. This sometimes happens in medical situations, too; doctors or nurses who believe a patient to be struggling with medical information or the healthcare system can request a social worker in a particular case.
The next time you are in an overwhelming medical situation, you should ask your doctor about the kinds of social services available to you. You might be given access to a social worker, or you might be directed to other resources that will help you navigate the system without a social worker’s direct assistance. You can also visit websites like Benefits.gov to investigate what social services are available to you based on your location, age, income, and other factors.
Just because you are confused by a medical situation doesn’t mean you need a healthcare social worker. However, if you are in and out of healthcare facilities, struggling to understand your medical conditions, treatment options and rights and confused by insurance and payment policies, you are likely a good candidate for social service. A social worker can help you feel more confident and in control of your health — physical, mental and financial — so you should look into acquiring one today.