When patients seek care because they are struggling with health challenges, they encounter a complex system that’s often difficult to navigate. How will they access, pay for, and continue care in the face of insurance approvals, financial challenges, and the everyday pressures of life? And for those patients who are also facing socioeconomic challenges, these difficulties are compounded by additional serious health issues including disproportionate levels of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, untreated mental health problems, and maternal health complications. As a health care system, it’s time to redouble our efforts to fight health care disparities, and social workers need to play a more critical role. We need more social workers on the front lines to address these disparities and help make the health care system work better for all people.

Despite the profession’s long-standing commitment to clients’ health and wellness, social workers remain an often discounted component of health care teams. However, social workers play an indispensable role in helping patients navigate insurance, in-home care, community resources, economic assistance, and mental health services at the conclusion of a hospitalization. One misconception is that the role of counselor, coordinator, and advocate is needed only as an acute medical intervention draws to an end, when the reality is that a social worker can be beneficial throughout a patient’s entire medical journey.

First and foremost, social workers are trusted guides in a complex health care system that can’t always meet patients where they are. Social workers can advise on important decisions, improve communication between provider and patient, and dig more deeply to identify root causes and concerns a physician may not have time to unearth. Patients can turn to social workers with questions and concerns they may be too intimidated to discuss with their health care provider. With the time to more closely work with patients, social workers can increase compliance with care instructions, ensure proper follow-ups, and ultimately improve patient health outcomes.

Social workers can also be patients’ best advocates in a care setting, making sure their voices are heard and their needs are fully met. This is especially true when it comes to counteracting bias in the provision of care. For example, studies have shown that African American patients’ pain is often undertreated relative to that of Caucasian patients. Faced with these challenges, social workers in a care setting can help resolve communication issues, encourage patients to persist in making their needs known, and provide insights into how best to pursue proper care when a pathway doesn’t always seem open. By working to confront bias, social workers can even help correct damaging assumptions that can lower the quality of care received.

Social work is a calling, and we need more practitioners to meet the increasing demands placed on the health care system, including those caused by the opioid crisis and aging Baby Boomers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has predicted 16% growth in the need for health care social workers through 2026, and meeting that demand with skilled, compassionate men and women is critical. If we have any hope of meaningfully reducing health disparities and better caring for disadvantaged populations, it’s time to get more serious about health care social work.

That begins with raising social workers’ profiles within the health care system. Patients and their families should know that a social work team is available to support them throughout their treatment and follow-up. Next, health care educators must do more to connect students interested in health professions to this field. When we talk to students about careers in the health care industry, health care social work should be included with other clinical disciplines. Finally, social work support should be expanded in high-need communities. With smaller caseloads, social workers can best do their jobs, which, by improving patient outcomes, provides long-term savings to our health care system.

In the media and in discussions with students, we often stress the need for the next generation of doctors and nurses, and that is undoubtedly important. However, even without a stethoscope or a prescription pad, health care social work is an essential career option in making a difference in patients’ lives and improving health care for our communities.

Gilbert Singletary, PhD, JD, MSSW, MBA

Gilbert Singletary, PhD, JD, MSSW, MBA, is Senior Director of the School of Healthcare Professions of Chamberlain University.

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