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Becoming a Medical Social Worker

Medical social worker blog header
Medical social worker blog header

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that of the approximately 160,000 healthcare social workers employed in the United States, medical social workers rank amongst the highest earners, with those who work in medical/surgical hospitals earning a median hourly wage 32% greater than their counterparts who work at community mental health centers.  And while some entry level positions do accept those with a bachelor’s degree in social work, most medical social work jobs such as those in hospitals and healthcare institutions require an advanced degree such as an MSW.   

So what are the key ingredients to becoming a medical social worker, one might ask? They include a solid MSW education, internship experience at a medical clinic or hospital, being a good team player, having compassion/empathy/comfortability with palliative care, and perhaps most of all, adaptability.

An MSW Education:   For most medical social workers, a Master’s degree in Social Work is generally the accepted and mandated standard.  Indeed, the quality of your education will determine and pave the way to the rest of your career in social work. It is important, first and foremost, that you fulfill the standard criteria of an accredited school of social work.  

A Medical or Health Based Internship:  Landing an internship in a medical practice or hospital is helpful to the medical social worker honing his or her skills for the realities of work on the front lines as an integral part of a medical team. The aspiring medical social worker soon learns via the medically based internship the intimate realities of the interplay between psychosocial circumstances and medical care. The two are inseparable, and there is no better introduction to this than a quality internship with top notch supervision.  

The Team Approach:  Unlike individual private practice, medical social workers often find themselves working as important members of professional teams that may include: doctors, nurses, physical therapists, respiratory therapists, psychiatrists and any number of assorted specialists.  Collaboration amongst the team is key to creating a positive working environment amongst colleagues and the medical social worker often leads the charge in this effort.

Palliative Care: Palliative care, a component of medical social work, can take a unique personality that may not suit everyone. Palliative care involves specialized care for individuals with serious illnesses. The focus is on improving the quality of life for the patient. As a medical social worker, you may be faced with illnesses on a severe spectrum.   However, for those who find a suitable role here, the work of palliative care can be amongst the most rewarding you will find in medical social work.  

Adaptability:  This is perhaps the hallmark calling card of all medical social workers.  The medical social worker finds him or herself wearing many different hats on any given day and seamless adaptability is both necessary and expected.  And while this adaptability may seem a bit intimidating to a new MSW graduate, it is also what makes medical social work such a lively and engaging career: No day is the same, no patient is the same and you find yourself as a part of a unique field of social work that is ever-growing and ever-exciting.

For further reading, check out this blog post: MSW Spotlight: Q&A with Craig Stanley, Ph., Associate Dean for Academic Affairs