What Is a Medical Social Worker?

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Smiling social worker meets with elderly patient in a wheelchair.Social workers play a valuable and impactful role in multiple industries and in our communities. Providing relief, support, and counseling to individuals, as well as working toward meaningful change within our social systems, the work that social workers do can have a long-lasting, positive effect on the lives of others.

In the health care industry, medical social workers specialize in providing support to patients in clinical settings. Tasked with assisting patients through the challenges of overcoming illness, dealing with loss, undergoing recovery, and navigating the health care system, medical social workers have both a difficult and rewarding role. They guide their patients to valuable resources, provide emotional and social support, and serve as advocates. Doing so effectively requires a nuanced knowledge of how medical facilities work, what social obstacles patients and their families face, and what resources are available, so pursuing an advanced degree, such as a Master of Social Work (MSW), can be a vital step for individuals pursuing careers in this field.

What Do Medical Social Workers Do?

Health care is a multifaceted industry that functions through the cooperation and coordination of a multitude of professionals, institutions, and service providers. What a medical social worker does is work within this complex system to provide support, guidance, and resources to patients.

Treating both emergent patients and those with chronic, acute, or terminal illness, medical social workers are able to help their patients set goals for themselves and coordinate the appropriate resources to meet their needs. This support can come in the form of day-to-day duties such as:

  • Providing psychosocial support and coping strategies through informal counseling sessions or meetings
  • Coordinating care plans or support strategies with other specialists
  • Discussing needs, conditions, or treatment plans with both patients and their families or support systems
  • Assisting patients with discharge from medical institutions and working to set them up for success while dealing with their illness and recovery from home
  • Researching the latest techniques and wellness strategies to provide their patients with effective programs and care

For many patients, adapting to life with chronic or acute illness or learning to cope with the ebbs and flows of recovery can be both incredibly challenging and unfamiliar. From managing paperwork; to adjusting to a care plan, medications and treatments; to coordinating with a support system and setting goals, myriad factors go into recovery aside from healing itself. Sometimes, a medical social worker’s role may be as practical as finding a financing solution to pay medical bills or as simple as guiding a patient to the right support group.

Empathy, experience, and advanced education in social work and health care issues are all part of the tool kit that medical social workers use to support their patients throughout these processes.

Medical Social Worker Skills

One way to answer the question, What is a medical social worker? is to look at the personality and skills that the job requires. The health care industry is full of passionate, hardworking, caring individuals, and medical social workers are no exception. Guiding patients through some of the most difficult challenges of their lives, from chronic illness to recovery from pain pill addiction, begins with compassion, empathy, hard work, and resilience.

Providing this support requires core competencies, including the following:

  • Communication skills. Medical social workers must be able to effectively and professionally interact with patients, their families or support systems, and other medical professionals.
  • Empathy and compassion. Providing support during difficult times requires that medical social workers be able to use skills such as active listening to relate to and build a rapport with their patients.
  • Organizational and time management skills. Working within medical institutions, such as hospitals, can be incredibly fast paced, requiring that medical social workers work efficiently and manage their time effectively to provide the best possible care to their patients.

The proper functioning of our health care system requires the dedication and cooperation of a network of individuals. For many patients, medical social workers act as a hub of this network and an anchor in the process of recovery, reassuring them and directing them toward the resources they need to achieve success.

Medical Social Worker Salary and Career Outlook

As highly skilled professionals working in environments ranging from hospitals to rehabilitation or psychiatric facilities, nursing homes, doctor’s offices, and outpatient centers, medical social workers are in demand across the country. What a medical social worker is tasked with depends on the setting, but  those who hold a degree such as an MSW may be more competitive in pursuing positions that fit their needs, including competitive compensation.

The approximate median annual salary for medical social workers was $57,721 as of July 2022, according to Payscale. With a projected job growth rate of 12% between 2020 and 2030, according to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a multitude of opportunities should be available for medical social workers in the coming years.

Build a Fulfilling Career as a Medical Social Worker

Medical social workers have the opportunity to make a meaningful and rewarding impact on their patients’ lives every day. From those with prolonged illness and care needs to those in emergency settings, medical social workers support the emotional and social well-being of patients.

For future leaders in medical social work, pursuing an advanced degree, such as an online MSW from Ohio University, can be a key steppingstone in building the practical skills required to build a successful career. Designed by industry professionals, the University’s fully online program has three concentrations to choose from and allows students to maintain a work-life balance by studying on their own schedule. Take a look at our program today to discover your pathway to a fulfilling career as a medical social worker.

Recommended Readings

Public Health and Social Work: Degrees and Career Opportunities

Social Work vs. Sociology: Which Field Is Right for You?

What Can You Do with a Social Work Degree?


American Board of Clinical Social Work, What Is Clinical Social Work?

Houston Chronicle, “Roles of a Medical Social Worker in the Outpatient Unit”

Indeed, What Is Medical Social Work? (Plus Job Duties and Salary)

Payscale, Average Medical Social Worker Salary

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers