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Social Work Profession: Health

People with medical illnesses often have related problems. They may need help re-establishing their routines once they arrive home from the hospital or they may have trouble paying their bills. Families who lose a loved one may need counseling to process their grief, and those with hereditary conditions may need help sorting through their fears and concerns about the future.

Social workers play a key role in all of these health-related areas and more. In fact, a large percentage of the nation’s social workers work in medical settings—20% practice in hospitals, for example, and 12% in medical clinics. Social workers also work in hospices, health maintenance organizations, nursing homes and health organizations like the American Cancer Society and the America Lung Association.

Social workers use a wide range of skills in all of these settings, employing both a family and a systems-oriented approach to psychosocial care. They provide counseling, help families develop strengths and resources, and run programs for patients who have diseases such as AIDS and heart disease. They play an advocacy role as well: One social worker in New York, for example, developed a radio program aimed at informing people about how to prevent eating disorders.

The long and prestigious history of social workers working in the health care system dates back to 1905, when social work advocate Ida M. Cannon launched the first hospital social work department at Massachusetts General Hospital. Even then, hospital officials acknowledged that patients needed help making a smooth transition from the hospital to the community. This remains an important role for today’s social workers, who serve as case managers or “discharge planners” who ease the transition from hospital to home.