Putting the Spotlight on Social Workers in Healthcare

Written by Ronny Bachrach

I’ve had the misfortune of spending quite a bit of time in an inpatient setting with my young daughter. Among the myriad of people that come into your room to introduce themselves is often a Social Worker.

In our case, the social worker initially took on a verbally supportive role. She would come in regularly to “check-in” and ask how we were doing. How we were doing was stressed, worried, and cramped living in a small room for several months.

It wasn’t until about a month into our stay, and a little bit of frustration from my husband and I, that we asked the social worker what she could do to actually help us.

As it turned out, it was quite a bit. Our social worker assisted us with gift cards for gas covering our trips to and from the hospital, for the cafeteria so my husband and I could eat, and – gasp – even paying our mortgage for the months we were in the hospital.

Yeah, wow! Who knew? Frankly, hardly anyone knows. And there’s a reason for that. Even within the same hospital, Social Workers do not necessarily offer the same assistance. It varies by each department’s available funding.

In an interview with an incredible social worker at a local Boston hospital, she explains, “There’s unfortunately no a-la-carte menu.”

She goes on to explain that one of the challenges of their profession is to have a balanced enough approach, meaning they’re both a listener and a doer.

Another challenge is that to successfully help families, the families have to have the capacity to communicate their pain points or directly ask for help. As many know, asking for help doesn’t always come naturally.

Unfortunately, not all families in an inpatient setting have the mental bandwidth to articulate what aspects of their lives or care could be improved. And because the offerings aren’t standardized, there’s no way to communicate the options without knowing what’s challenging for them. So, it takes a skilled Social Worker to find appropriate times in a stay to open lines of communication for that information to come to light.

To be clear, not all Social Workers’ offerings are contingent on funding. There are many ways they can help address the challenges of being treated in both an inpatient and an outpatient setting. Families are often inundated with overwhelming amounts of information from different healthcare professionals. Social workers, the impressive human beings that they are, have a unique ability to speak to doctors and parents and mediate between the two. Their ability to interpret and translate both ways can be an integral puzzle piece in making both sides feel heard and understood.

Hospital Social Workers also work closely with Child Life Services to help patients and families cope with difficulties in both inpatient and outpatient settings. While Child Life might primarily address the child’s needs, the Social Worker can address the family’s feelings to make medical interactions more comfortable.

In addition to working closely with Child Life, Social Workers often serve patients and families by working together across departments. It is not uncommon for patients to be seen by multiple specialists in different departments to evaluate and treat an injury, illness, or disease. As each hospital department often has its own Social Worker, it’s helpful for them to coordinate care amongst themselves to take some of the burden off the families. If they are in lockstep regarding a family’s financial needs or limitations, mental health, communication styles, comfort levels, and school needs… they’re better able to streamline assistance and save the family from duplicating efforts. Hospital Social Workers also work in what we may think are more traditional roles, liaising with DCSF, hospital security, mental health providers, and even schools.

The bottom line is that they can be an extremely beneficial resource in your child and family’s lives in countless ways. And this is also true for adult patients and their families. The key to making the most of a Social Worker’s services is to be open and honest with what’s challenging for you and to directly ask what they can help you to accomplish.

We know that when we’re overwhelmed, even finding the right questions to ask can be hard. Contact us for help any time.