Social workers work with clients to assess the full range of their needs and help them access the services and resources to improve their quality of life. In short, social workers help people solve problems, set goals, and get things done.

In the field of home health care, there are two main specialties that rely on medical social workers (MSWs) as a vital part of the multidisciplinary care team: hospice and home health.

The Role of a Hospice Social Worker

Hospice is for people who have received a life-expectancy prognosis of six months or less. In lieu of curative treatment, hospice care focuses holistically on giving the patient and their immediate family members the best quality of life in their remaining time together. Much of that entails pain and symptom management, but the medical social worker plays a critical role in helping clients and families deal with the other emotions, relationship issues, and logistics that come near the end of life.

The hospice social worker acts as a strong advocate for patients and families, honoring self-determination, cultural differences, and end-of-life preferences. The social worker uses active listening skills to support problem-solving and decision-making and to provide emotional support. As needed, the MSW can guide the patient and family in areas such as finance, advance directives, available state and federal program funding, and funeral planning.

Another essential element of the hospice social worker’s role is counseling the patient and family in their grief and loss, helping with end-of-life goal setting and wish fulfillment, and supporting the patient to gain insight into the existential meaning of their experience and to optimize their well-being at the end of life.

The Role of a Home Health Social Worker

Home health is a suite of care services that help clients with short-term medical needs. Most of these clients recently transitioned from hospital to home. Maybe they are recovering from a surgery, injury, or acute illness. Or they may have a chronic disease such as diabetes, COPD, or heart failure, and a doctor has prescribed short-term home nursing care to help them better manage their condition.

Catherine Briggs, LSW, works as a medical social worker for BAYADA Home Health Care in Burlington, New Jersey. We asked her to tell us more about “a day in the life.”

Catherine: “It’s hard to describe a typical day, because every day is different, which is part of what I love about my job. Medical social workers use our wealth of knowledge to bridge the gap between our clients and all the resources and services they need. In home health, the social worker often is the primary coordinator on a client’s care team, and we’re the one primarily thinking about emotional support and advocacy for the client and family.

Current insurance regulations only give us a few visits with each client, and the average home care episode lasts one to two months. So MSWs need to work quickly to identify problems and create immediate and longer-term interventions. We assess each client’s needs and create a plan to address each challenge. Then we’re their support system while the plan is implemented.

Medical social work is fast-paced and intense in nature, so you need to be an excellent problem solver who can juggle a variety of crisis situations at once. I love the challenge and variety this field provides me as a clinician. I am learning every day, and helping others learn as well.”

What is it like to work with home health clients?

Catherine: “When an MSW meets with a new client, our primary goal is for them to feel heard. Maybe they’re no longer able to drive and they’re worried about losing their independence. Or, they might need more care but are concerned they can’t afford it. One of my favorite parts of my job is the look of relief on a client’s or family caregiver’s face when I’ve given them hope!

We see clients during some of their most vulnerable moments. Many of them are scared and feeling hopeless. Maybe they were just given a new, life-changing diagnosis. They’re probably feeling overwhelmed as they adjust to their ‘new normal.’ Medical social work gives you the opportunity to work with nearly every population and address a wide range of complex needs. There is never a dull moment, and you can make a big impact in a short period of time.”

What kinds of impact can you have as a medical social worker?

Catherine: “In home health, social workers play a significant role in reducing readmissions and keeping people out of the hospital. By the time a case closes, I feel like I’ve helped the client address their short-term and long-term goals, and I’ve hooked them up with the long-term supports they need to stay healthy and happy in the comfort of their own home and community. Information is power. I empower people. Making someone feel empowered, when they’ve lived without that feeling for so long, is incredibly rewarding!”

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