Medical social work, also referred to as hospital social work, is a sub-discipline of social work. Medical social workers offer psychosocial help to patients and their families in different settings such as medical and mental health clinics, hospitals, nursing homes, hospices and rehabilitation centers. This is done in cooperation with professionals from other fields such as medicine, ...
Medical social work, also referred to as hospital social work, is a sub-discipline of social work. Medical social workers offer psychosocial help to patients and their families in different settings such as medical and mental health clinics, hospitals, nursing homes, hospices and rehabilitation centers. This is done in cooperation with professionals from other fields such as medicine, nursing, physical and other types of therapy. Medical social workers aim to make health care more comprehensive and humane by finding more effective and efficient approaches to working with patients and their families. In the first quarter of the 20th century social workers came to fill an important need in health care and their value was recognized by people like US physician and social work pioneer Richard Cabot (1868-1939). Social workers considered illness to be a social problem, meaning that a patient's illness influences the lives of those in his or her social world and they in turn influence the course and sometimes even the nature of the illness. According to Cabot, as cited by Surjit Singh Dhooper in Social Work and Transplantation of Human Organs (1994), the personal difficulties of patients may sometimes be the cause rather than the result of their illness.
Social work is present in all types of health care: preventive and primary care; secondary and tertiary care; and restorative and continuing care. Prevention is aimed at eliminating or minimizing conditions that cause or contribute to illnesses via activities such as vaccination, hygiene instruction, enforcement of sanitation standards and research into causes and cures of diseases. Primary care refers to routine care provided by professionals who act as a first point of consultation for all patients, for example general practitioners or family physicians. Primary care, provided by institutions such as well-baby clinics, neighborhood health centers and general practitioners' offices, is focused on preventing illnesses or detecting them at an early stage. Since the late 19th century, social workers have participated in prevention and primary care by organizing or co-organizing public health campaigns and programs to fight problems such as infant mortality, rickets, scurvy, tuberculosis and venereal infections.
Secondary care refers to acute care, usually short-term and intensive, provided by medical specialists in emergency rooms, trauma centers and intensive care units. In contrast, tertiary care is special care provided over a longer period of time in institutions such as specialty hospitals for specific health conditions or population groups. Social workers got involved in secondary and tertiary health care at a later stage, with the aim to attend to the needs of the families of patients which were often ignored by the medical and nursing personnel. The settings for secondary and tertiary care evoke feelings of fear and anxiety in patients' families as they realize that the illness is serious and potentially fatal. Therefore social workers came to add a psychosocial dimension to emergency, trauma and intensive care, contributing considerably to making health care more comprehensive. According to Cabot, as cited in Social Work and Transplantation of Human Organs, medical and social work are "branches split off a common trunk: the care of people in trouble." In 1905 Cabot laid the foundations of social service departments in hospitals by appointing the first social worker at his clinic in Massachusetts. Cabot was impressed how social workers carefully studied the patient's character and social environments and how they consulted third parties in order to get a comprehensive overview of the patient's condition. These early social workers had three different functions: to describe the patient's domestic and social conditions to the doctor; to assist patients in complying with the doctor's instructions; and to link the hospital to community agencies.
Restorative care, provided in rehabilitation hospitals and even in patients' own homes, is aimed at helping patients restore their health and capacity after an injury or disease. The services provided by social workers in this type of care are more or less the same as in tertiary care but they extend over a longer period of time. In contrast, the target groups for continuing care are chronically ill people who have lost, or never had, the ability to take care of themselves. Such care is provided in institutions like nursing homes, day care centers and voluntary health agencies. Chronically ill people never achieve full recovery, their quality of life is affected by physical or mental problems and this situation is often worsened by negative attitudes in society.