Social workers: An integral part of the healthcare team

Linda Rider

Social work has traditionally been treated as a separate function from healthcare. Degrees in social work are taught in different departments, and often in different schools than degrees in healthcare. Yet, the two sectors are inextricably linked. In some areas, healthcare is evolving to break down the barriers and develop a more integrated approach to caring for patients.

As healthcare gradually makes the transition from fee-for-service reimbursement to value-based payment systems, there is a greater incentive to deliver effective care for better patient outcomes.

Social workers have a key role to play in integrated care teams. They are now being hired in greater numbers to support primary care teams due to their skills in working to address both behavioral health problems and physical health problems which are linked to behavioral dependencies, such as those relating to diabetes treatment.

Social workers are skilled at addressing behavioral health issues, coordinating multifaceted care plans, providing education on health and wellness and helping families to navigate the complexities of health systems. They work with many different types of diagnoses, and with individuals and families from a range of populations, including pediatrics, adolescents and adults, often supporting the most vulnerable sections of society.

The impact of involving social workers in primary care teams is particularly significant when it comes to mental health problems and related physical problems. Social workers have expertise in providing support for patients to access specialized services, such as counselling, care management and skill-building services. Facilitating access to these types of services has been shown to improve behavioral health outcomes for patients with a wide range of needs and across different age populations.

A 10-year study carried out by Intermountain Healthcare found that integrated care in a primary care setting could provide improved patient outcomes, with fewer hospital admissions, and could be delivered at lower cost. According to the study, where there was an integrated primary care team, a self-care plan was implemented in 48.4% of cases, compared with just 8.6% of cases where traditional care was provided.

The demand for social workers is growing rapidly. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were over 708,100 social work jobs in the US as at 2021. By 2031, the number of roles is expected to have grown by 9%, leading to plenty of opportunities for career progression in the sector.

Studying for a master’s in social work online gives you the flexibility to learn at your own pace and at times to suit your work schedule and any other commitments you have, with both full-time and part-time programs to choose from. Components include Human Dynamics in the Social Context, Policy Analysis and Strategies for Change, and Applied Critical Thinking. The online MSW degree at Spalding University is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education and will aid applicants in landing a job in social work.

In order to make the best use of the sometimes-undervalued contribution which social workers have to offer in primary care, it is important that social workers are supported within health care teams and are given any training required as well as tools to maintain their own health. This will enable social workers to maximize their potential and deliver enhanced patient care and effective health care outcomes for all.

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