How to Become a Medical Social Worker

Social workers are at the front lines of helping people cope with problems affecting their well-being. Often, these problems are related to medical and health issues. While many social workers practice in schools and mental health clinics, those in a medical social worker role may find themselves in hospitals, community clinics and other healthcare settings.

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Steps to Become a Medical Social Worker

  1. Obtain a Master’s Degree in Social Work
  2. Choose a Focus Area – If Applicable
  3. Apply for Licensure in Your State – If Applicable
  4. Gain Experience Treating Clients with Medical or Physical Conditions – If Applicable
  5. Apply for  the C-SWHC Credential – If Applicable
  6. Apply for Medical Field Social Worker Positions

1. Obtain a Master’s Degree in Social Work.

For those who already have a bachelor’s degree in social work, a master’s in social work program may be completed in one year. Most master’s in social work programs take two years to complete. Online MSW programs are available for those seeking some flexibility in their coursework enrollment. The Certified Social Worker in Health Care (C-SWHC) credential from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) does require a master’s degree accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).

2. Choose a Focus Area – If Applicable
Focus on an area such as healthcare or medical social work. This prepares students for working in healthcare settings and with clients undergoing medical issues.

3. Apply for Licensure in Your State – If Applicable
Social workers must be licensed by their state to become licensed clinical social workers (LCSW) or equivalent. Licensure enables social workers to provide therapy and counseling services, to diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders, and to refer clients to resources and services. 

4. Gain Experience with Clients Affected by Medical Conditions or Physical Limitations – If Pursuing the C-SWHC Credential
The C-SWHC credential, if pursuing, requires at least two years of post-MSW employment in an agency or organization that provides treatment to individuals and families who are affected by medical or physical conditions.

5. Apply for the C-SWHC Credential
If you are seeking a credential to add credibility to your experience in healthcare as a social worker, apply for the C-SWHC credential from the NASW after completing your required master’s in social work, licensure, and post-MSW experience.

6. Apply for Medical Field Social Worker Positions 
Use your network to apply for jobs in the state where you’re licensed. Your social worker license must be renewed every two  years, and 30 hours of continued education must be completed before each renewal.

What Is a Medical Social Worker?

Medical social workers assist with clients who span the healthcare continuum. Medical social workers help individuals, families and communities lead the healthiest lives possible, through access to medical and health resources and counseling.

These professionals help clients who are undergoing health and medical challenges, such as illness, a disability or hospitalization for injury. Medical social workers also work within healthcare systems to advocate for policies that improve healthcare access for vulnerable populations.

Many hospital social workers practice in specific environments and are assigned to clients based on diagnosis, age or gender. Medical social workers may specialize in areas including emergency/trauma, pediatrics, nephrology, transplant and oncology, for example. They can also specialize in areas including suicidality, medication management and adherence, end of life decisions, catastrophic disability, terminal illness, independent living resources, and homelessness.

Medical social workers must be confident decision-makers who can be assertive with clients and families while exhibiting empathy and compassion. They must also be extremely organized, since these professionals often juggle many clients at once and must complete paperwork for client updates.

Effective practitioners have the ability to contribute positively to the lives of individuals and families, as well as to bolster communities. They may help increase the number of medically insured, improve mental well-being, help decrease client recovery times and provide early intervention and prevention of child abuse. The clients you work with and the environment you work in will shape the impact you can make in this field.

What Do Medical Social Workers Do?

Medical social workers help clients and families understand diagnoses and work through emotions. They provide clients and families with counseling for decision-making in the healthcare process, including addressing psychological, financial and social issues related to the diagnosis.

Medical social workers may also work with health professionals like doctors and nurses to help them understand the emotional and social aspects of a client’s diagnosis. They may be on teams that include physicians, discharge coordinators, physical therapists and administrative staff to ensure coordinated clients and family care.

They may also work in healthcare leadership roles, serving in administration or management for healthcare programs like community outreach, mental health and aging.

The job duties of a social worker may include:

  • Screening and evaluating clients and families for mental, behavioral and emotional social work needs, including a psychosocial clients assessment
  • Communicating treatment options for a diagnosis
  • Explaining to clients and families how to adjust to a diagnosis
  • Being an advocate for healthcare team members, by helping families and clients understand their work and roles
  • Providing resources for healthcare, medical financing and advance directives
  • Coordinating continued care planning
  • Advocating for vulnerable populations in healthcare policy

As a medical social worker, you can make a direct impact on the lives of clients and families you interact with. You may also aspire to move up the leadership ranks in healthcare and work closely with doctors to improve social work in a healthcare setting. Others enjoy policy work, which can transform the healthcare opportunities for entire communities.

Where Do Medical Social Workers Work?

Many medical social workers practice in inpatient and outpatient medical facilities. According to the BLS, 14% of total social workers are employed by ambulatory healthcare services.

Other professionals work in clients’ homes, providing counseling services to individuals and families who are undergoing medical challenges. Some medical social workers work in nursing homes or rehabilitation centers. Others work in specialized clinics, like dialysis centers. Medical social workers may also work in support group settings, providing therapy to clients and families in support groups. 

Finally, some work in offices, particularly in administrative, management or policy roles. These offices may be part of a healthcare setting like a hospital, or they may be within non-profit or government centers. Some work in public health environments, providing education in settings like classrooms.

If you’re interested in a career in social work, if you want to work in a fast-paced environment and if you enjoy learning about healthcare and medical issues, a career as a medical social worker may be for you. Use this guide for information. 

Medical Social Worker Salary

The BLS reports the median annual wage for healthcare social workers in 2020 was $51,760.

According to the BLS, the 2020 annual median wages for social workers in the top industries were as follows:

  • Local government, excluding education and hospitals: $57,660
  • Ambulatory healthcare services: $52,850
  • State government, excluding education and hospitals: $49,860
  • Individual and family services: $43,820

Medical social workers may work in all of these types of environments. The highest 10% of social workers in 2020 earned more than $85,820. View our social work salary page to learn more about the salary of a social worker.