The healthcare system exists to keep people healthy and give them easy access to medical attention when they need it. It is also a key sector within society for helping to educate people about living in a healthier way and providing expert help when managing ongoing medical conditions in daily life. While healthcare can focus on the physical aspect of staying in top shape, mental health is also something it pays attention to.
By taking the time to understand patients’ emotional needs and how mental health can impact a person’s quality of life, the healthcare system is able to offer a more fully rounded service. But what if the factors that negatively impact a person’s lifestyle fall outside of the healthcare systems remit? In this instance, social workers are a useful professional resource for medical professionals to call on for assistance.
Social work and healthcare: How do these sectors fit together for the benefit of patients?
On the face of it, it is easy to assume that social work and healthcare are two different sectors that never crossover. Social work, for example, is based on helping the most vulnerable people in society deal with a variety of issues impacting their daily life, while healthcare is concentrated on providing medical assistance to patients.
While this is true, there are times when social workers can prove useful for the healthcare system to help patients get the best care. This can involve healthcare facilities employing medical social workers or seeking out ad-hoc help from external social workers when needed. Help from social work professionals can be both in a physical and mental sense, as issues people are experiencing in society may well have a negative influence on both.
If someone is homeless and living on the streets, for example, this may cause them to contract a serious medical condition like pneumonia. In this case, healthcare professionals may call on trained social workers for help around finding the patient somewhere to live post-discharge, so the illness does not come back again from living rough.
Likewise, someone may be admitted to hospital showing signs of a mental disorder, such as anxiety or depression. Once they have been examined by a mental health professional, it may be found that domestic abuse at home is the root of their problems. Medical professionals may then turn to social workers for help in resolving these issues at home and thus more effectively treating the patient’s mental disorders.
How does one enter social work and help the healthcare system offer more effective treatment?
The above sets out how social workers can combine with healthcare to deliver more collaborative treatment for patients. Without social workers to collaborate with when needed, it could be very hard for medical professionals to fix the root cause of what is troubling their patient when it sits outside of the healthcare system.
For example, although a nurse may patch up cuts someone has inflicted on themselves through self-harm, they might not fully solve the problem if the self-harm is being caused by substance abuse or bullying in the workplace. However, a social worker could work with the patient on these kinds of issues and help to resolve them in the long-term, thus curing their propensity for self-harm.
But how does one become a social worker if they like the thought of helping people get more effective treatment? The best way is to pick up a bachelor’s degree in social work first and then study for a more advanced award in the sector after. The online advanced standing MSW at FSU is a popular course to consider, and helps graduates reach the very top of the social work sector. Along with the ability to graduate in only two years, this program by Florida State University also teaches students about how to collaborate with professionals in other industries and work effectively in interprofessional teams.
What skills and qualities are needed for a career in social work?
Although gaining the right qualifications to move into social work is essential, it is also worth thinking about the skills and qualities required to thrive in the industry. Doing this will help potential social workers see for sure whether social work is for them and that they have what it takes to help the neediest in society.
It goes without saying that compassion and empathy are both traits that any social work professional needs. This means caring about the people they help and treating them in a kind, respectful manner. Social workers should also have a firm sense of justice and a desire to do what is right. This will help them fight for the people in society who most need it and speak up when they see injustice.
In terms of top skills for social workers, communication is one of the most important to work on. This could be both verbal communication (in client meetings, video calls or via telephone) and written communication (via email, letter, or text message). Good communication skills help social workers engage clients in a culturally competent way and ensure clients understand any information they pass on.
Listening is also a very important skill for any social work professional. This enables social workers to actively listen to what a client is saying and fully take in all the information. Social workers also need good skills in areas like IT, organization, and ethics. These will all make them more likely to succeed in the profession and enjoy a long, fulfilling career.
Underserved communities: What are they?
One of the things that is likely to draw people to this career is the chance to help the worst off in society. This goes hand in hand with helping health workers to offer more effective treatment to patients, as the people who need medical attention are often from underserved communities and experience health problems driven by societal causes.
This is only common sense, considering underserved communities are likely to suffer from issues such as lack of employment opportunities, crime and poor housing, which could lie behind any medical issues they develop.
But what exactly are underserved communities? These are generally seen as communities that do not have the same access to the resources that other groups of people do. Underserved communities can often experience discrimination, which presents more barriers to accessing the resources other groups do. Common factors behind a community being underserved can include geography, race, sexuality, and poverty.
Who are the most underserved communities?
In the USA today, when it comes to accessing things like healthcare, some of the most underserved communities include:
- African American
- Less financially secure
When you dig a little into the statistics behind the most underserved groups, the picture becomes clearer. The Undefeated’s 2020 survey on race and health, for example, showed that one in five Hispanic patients reported being treated unfairly due to their ethnicity when seeking medical attention. This was also true for African Americans in the same survey, who reported the same findings.
For trans people, a Washington Post survey from 2023 showed that more people in this group found it difficult to access healthcare resources due to their sexuality. Rural communities often struggle to get the medical assistance they need due to a low density of providers that are easily accessible to them. These kinds of findings show the trouble underserved communities can have in terms of accessing the same level of healthcare services that other groups enjoy.
How can social workers collaborate with healthcare teams to help underserved communities?
Although it is not just healthcare where underserved communities can face a struggle to access the help they need, it is one sector where this issue arises. It is also an industry where social workers can have a real impact in terms of working with healthcare teams to ensure patients from these communities get the care they deserve.
But how can social workers stimulate this kind of collaboration to help underserved groups get the medical attention they require?
Support for medical costs
When looking at how social workers can collaborate with teams in healthcare to help patients from underserved communities access medical care, a good place to start revolves around cost. We have already noted that poverty can play a major role in preventing the poorest in society from accessing healthcare when they need it.
This leads to an uneven playing field, as people who do have the money to access medical care are able to make use of resources that poorer people cannot. This is often through no fault of the poorest in society, who may not live somewhere where there are lots of job opportunities and may not have the same chances to make the money needed for health insurance.
Social workers can step in here and liaise with healthcare admin teams to see what can be done in terms of financial help for poorer clients trying to get treatment. This could see social workers finding out from healthcare admin teams if a patient from an underserved community is eligible for help under schemes such as Medicaid. As this scheme exists to help low-income families access the healthcare system, working with admin teams in hospitals, clinics or community centers is an effective way for social workers to help.
Alternative ways of accessing treatment
We have already noted that people from rural communities can often be underserved when it comes to getting the medical care they require. Social workers can help here through collaborating with primary care teams at healthcare facilities around alternative models of delivery for more isolated communities. By doing this, social workers can collaborate with primary care teams to find ways for patients in these locations to get the medical care they need and not be prevented from accessing these key resources.
A good example of this are social workers speaking to nursing staff in a healthcare facility about offering telehealth appointments to rural patients. As these appointments are done online via a mobile device, they bring healthcare to the patient and make their geographical location a non-issue. Social workers could also collaborate with care teams to set schedules for home visits for people in very remote locations, or regular drop-in sessions at local community centers for people with personality disorders to make use of.
Greater levels of community engagement within the healthcare sector
For groups that have issues accessing healthcare resources based on things like ethnicity or sexuality, social workers can collaborate with healthcare teams to drive much greater community engagement. This could, for example, see social workers helping healthcare teams identify which groups in their area are facing issues in accessing care (such as African Americans or homosexuals) and pinpointing why this might be the case.
Social workers can then work to bring healthcare colleagues together with these underserved groups to help foster better engagement. The most useful way of doing this is usually by bringing healthcare colleagues into the community and helping them to build closer bonds with groups in this way.
By helping healthcare teams to engage an underserved community, social workers can not only enable everyone to get the best care possible but also show underserved groups where to go for medical help or how best to access it. It also enables healthcare professionals to get a better understanding of the problems an underserved community might face when needing medical assistance and how they can overcome this.
Advocacy work at a macro level
Advocacy work is another key point when thinking of how social workers collaborate with healthcare teams to provide the best care for underserved patients. This kind of work involves social work professionals and healthcare teams working together to pinpoint barriers within healthcare systems or policies that might lead to uneven access to treatment.
Once this has been done, they are then able to decide how best to fight against this to spark positive change and lead to a fairer healthcare system overall. Social workers are key to this because they can bring their own perspective to the debate, which is based on first-hand experience picked up outside of the healthcare system. When combined with the knowledge that healthcare teams add to the mix, this gives a much deeper insight into any potential problems.
Working together on this also enables social workers and healthcare teams to raise awareness of underserved populations in healthcare on a broader scale. This can lead to a much bigger media presence around these communities and more appetite from the public for them to be able to access the care everyone else can.
A good example of this in action might be a social worker collaborating with a mental health team regarding problems that people from a certain ethic group might face around getting care. This might involve social workers raising the awareness of the stigma around seeking help for mental health problems in a particular community, and healthcare staff pointing out how certain policies may naturally prevent them from getting the care they need. By advocating together on these issues, they can make a far more effective change.
Social work and healthcare collaboration: What is the future?
It is true to say that social work and healthcare are two sectors that already collaborate very well together in terms of patient care. There are social workers who are based solely in healthcare facilities, for example, and work with healthcare teams directly to deliver the best patient outcomes. Outside of this, social workers in other settings may well collaborate with healthcare teams who need help with certain cases.
The future therefore looks bright for this sort of collaboration, and it seems likely these two industries will work together more closely as time moves on. The greater levels of tech in both sectors should certainly help, as things like online meetings make it simpler than ever to work together on patient care. When it comes to underserved communities in particular, the greater awareness of this issue in society should see it become something that receives a lot more attention in general moving ahead.
Collaboration is key for underserved patients getting care
Although you would not think underserved communities would be an issue in the 21st century, they still sadly exist in society. This can lead to people from these groups experiencing barriers when trying to access resources that other communities can. Healthcare is one area where this can sometimes be seen for particular groups of people. Social workers can play a key role in helping to resolve this and work tirelessly with healthcare teams to achieve this. By engaging in this kind of collaboration, social workers are able to have a real impact on the healthcare system and ensure it offers the best care to all who require it.