Become a Medical or Healthcare Social Worker

By Maura Deering

Healthcare social workers offer psychosocial help for patients with acute, chronic, or terminal illnesses. Also referred to as medical social workers, healthcare social workers provide patients with counseling and information, refer clients for other services, and advise family members and caregivers.

Qualified clinical medical social workers can diagnose mental and behavioral health conditions and provide psychotherapy. These professionals must hold a master of social work (MSW) and a state license.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports a median annual income of $56,750 for healthcare social workers. This guide covers salary information in greater detail, along with the challenges and responsibilities of practicing social work in healthcare settings, job growth projections, and educational and licensing requirements.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does a social worker do in a hospital?

    Medical social workers assess patients' emotional, financial, and support needs and collaborate with other healthcare professionals to develop care plans. They also advise patients' caregivers, family members, and service agencies, and provide direct patient counseling and/or psychotherapy. They also may conduct group counseling sessions for hospital patients.

  • What's the difference between a medical social worker vs. clinical social worker?

    The main differences between the roles involve licensure and the services each can legally provide. Medical social workers can counsel clients and connect them with community and insurance resources. Clinical social workers must hold state licensure, and can diagnose patients and provide psychotherapy and treatment.

  • How long does it take to become a healthcare social worker?

    Social workers who want to become certified in a specialty area and/or practice clinical social work must earn an MSW. This process takes about six years. The path to a career as a healthcare social worker begins with a four-year bachelor's degree, while a master's degree in social work typically takes two additional years to complete.

  • Is a healthcare social worker a mandated reporter?

    In most states, healthcare workers, including social workers, fall under the mandated reporter umbrella. As such, they must report any suspected child abuse or neglect to the appropriate authorities. Some states may require hospital social workers to notify the child's family of the report.

Roles and Responsibilities of a Medical or Healthcare Social Worker

Social work in healthcare settings involves a variety of roles and responsibilities, including biopsychosocial-spiritual assessment, intervention, case and care management, and discharge and transition planning. They also perform patient advocacy and family/caregiver/hospital staff educational services. Hospital social workers interact with their patients on an individual basis, with family members and caregivers, and in group counseling sessions.

The National Association of Social Workers outlines some challenges and benefits associated with healthcare social work. For example, hospital social workers often enjoy the immediate, positive impact they can have on their patients' lives. Healthcare social work benefits those who enjoy administering cutting-edge treatments in fast-paced environments and collaborating with other healthcare professionals.

Challenges include more severe mental health issues among clients, heavy caseloads and paperwork, and long waiting lists for services. Additionally, many hospitals have closed their social work units and reassigned social work staff.

Medical Social Workers and the Affordable Care Act

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA) reformed healthcare delivery through integrated and coordinated models and systems, resulting in increased access to healthcare and patient-centered care.

The ACA provides opportunities for healthcare social work advancement in three key areas: improving care quality and patient satisfaction, improving population health, and reducing healthcare's per capita costs.

These focus areas have strengthened social work's role in healthcare, especially benefitting those with competency and skill in behavioral and mental health integration, care coordination, chronic care management, and healthcare navigation. Additional opportunities exist for medical social workers to serve the nation's aging population and participate in preventative health initiatives like workplace wellness and smoking cessation.

Top Paying Industries for Healthcare Social Workers

The BLS lists the top-paying industries for healthcare social workers as computer systems designs and related services, which pays an annual mean salary of $73,880, followed by religious organizations paying $72,730 a year. Junior colleges offer an annual mean salary of $69,600, while general medical and surgical hospitals pay $65,980, and other ambulatory healthcare services provide a mean salary of $65,080 a year.

Hospitals employ the largest number of healthcare social workers, with an employment level of 46,230.

Top Paying States for Healthcare Social Workers

Healthcare social workers earn the highest annual mean wage in California, making $79,620 a year, and in the District of Columbia, where they earn $74,160 annually. Oregon takes the third spot, offering mean annual wages totaling $74,050, followed by Connecticut, which offers a salary of $72,980. Finally, medical social workers in Nevada draw a mean annual salary of $72,640.

California also tops the list of states employing the most healthcare social workers, with 19,020 professionals. New York follows the Golden State, with 15,720 earning an annual mean wage of $61,470. Florida employs 10,690 workers, who make $52,700, followed by Massachusetts with 10,280 earning $61,650. Texas rounds out the top five, with its 10,250 healthcare social workers making $58,430 each year.

Top Paying Metropolitan Areas for Healthcare Social Workers

California cities take the top seven spots of the 10 highest-paying metropolitan areas. Leading the list, Vallejo-Fairfield pays an annual mean wage of $90,120. Healthcare social workers earn $89,620 in Silicon Valley (San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara), followed closely by Salinas at $89,500. The San Francisco Bay Area offers $86,560 and Napa $84,370. Fresno and the Los Angeles area boast salaries of $83,550 and $83,430, respectively.

Large metro areas employ the highest numbers of healthcare social workers. New York leads the top five with 14,180 earning $63,980, followed by Los Angeles (7,600), Boston (5,350), Miami (5,020), and Chicago (4,250).

Salary and Job Growth for Medical or Healthcare Social Workers

Healthcare social workers earn more money than many other types of social workers, and enjoy a higher 10-year projected job growth rate of 14% — second only to mental health and substance abuse social workers. This data translates to a projected 26,700 increase in healthcare social worker jobs through 2029, which exceeds all other categories of social workers except child, family, and school social workers.

Nevertheless, according to the NASW, some challenges have led to reduced services in certain healthcare settings. These include changes to healthcare financing and healthcare delivery, along with a shortage of data detailing social work efficacy.

Fortunately, healthcare social workers who assist the elderly should find themselves in demand. As the BLS reports, the nation's aging population, their family members, and their caregivers will need continuing guidance as they transition to new lifestyles, medications, and treatments. Job prospects also look good for licensed clinical social workers (LSCWs), who can diagnose and provide psychotherapy services and treatments.

How to Become a Medical or Healthcare Social Worker

A four-year bachelor of social work (BSW) qualifies a healthcare social worker to practice. However, the NASW recommends earning an MSW. LCSWs must hold an MSW, and the degree also qualifies a social worker to become certified in a specialization, such as healthcare.

The common pathway to a career as a medical or healthcare social worker consists of earning a bachelor's degree, followed by an MSW from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Master's programs do not require BSWs, but possession of a BSW may shorten the timeline for earning an MSW from two years to one year.

Many MSW programs offer concentrations in healthcare or medical social work. Classes cover such topics as clinical social work methods and therapies, crisis intervention, grief and bereavement counseling, and family dynamics. Healthcare social workers must log about two years of postgraduate supervised field experience.

Licensure and Certification Requirements

Social work licensing guidelines vary by state, but usually involve passing an exam administered by the ASWB or an equivalent organization. Most state licensing boards offer credentials for master's social workers and clinical social workers. Eligible applicants should hold an MSW with approximately 1,000 hours of supervised clinical experience.

The NASW offers social worker certification in healthcare. Advantages to pursuing certification include national recognition and visibility as a specialist in medical social work, which can provide an edge in the job market. Eligibility includes an MSW from a CSWE-accredited program, a state license, and two years of supervised medical social work field experience.