Health Careers: Social Worker

Teresa Johnson gives us glimpse of responsibilities of licensed clinical social worker

By Jana Eisenberg

Unless you’ve had direct interaction with one, or know someone in the field, many of us would be hard-pressed to describe exactly what a social worker does.

Many social workers actually can’t even define it succinctly. That’s because it’s a broad-based and far-reaching profession, with many different career paths.

An underlying fact of any social worker’s job, whether they work as a private mental health counselor, in an agency like Child Protective Services, or doing humanitarian work, is a focus on improving people’s lives. They can operate at many levels, from the individual, to groups, communities, systems and entire societies.

One specialization is the medical social worker. Most hospitals and health centers have social workers on staff, performing and providing an array of duties and services. Teresa Johnson is a licensed clinical social worker with a state-approved privilege to perform psychotherapy reimbursable by insurance (designated as “LCSW-R”). She works at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo.

Most of Roswell Park’s social workers are master’s-trained and licensed in New York state because the oncology setting is so comprehensive and social workers must provide more in-depth emotional support.

A bachelor’s-level social worker coordinates discharges to nursing homes and rehabilitation centers.

Johnson’s role is to provide support to patients and families with medical issues. “Our support comes in many forms, ranging from emotional support through individual or family counseling,” she said. “Our goal is to help patients and families overcome practical and emotional barriers that may get in the way of them accessing and following through on their medical care.”

Key part of team

Medical social workers also communicate in many ways with the rest of a patient’s care team. “Social workers may attend rounds, daily huddles or weekly conferences to discuss cases with nurses, doctors, physical and occupational therapists, case managers and dietitians,” Johnson explained. “Providers can also request social work services through the electronic medical record or secure email system. We also communicate any important information back to the providers directly and document our assessments and interventions in the electronic medical record.”

When clients are faced with medical issues — like a serious or chronic illness, or mental or physical health challenges — social workers play an important part in the patients’ care team. They are providers that patients and their caretakers can learn to count on.

The role of the social worker varies for each patient, depending on what they need. Social workers may meet with patients and families to support them through treatment decisions, assist with advanced care planning, and to provide crisis intervention or individual psychotherapy.

“If a patient is admitted into the hospital, we may work with the team to coordinate a safe discharge plan or help facilitate communication between medical providers through a family meeting,” added Johnson.

“A social worker is often a consistent point of contact for patients and families as they navigate medical treatment,” she said. “Social workers first complete psychosocial assessments to identify what patients’ and families’ needs may be. We can also educate them on resources that may be available and appropriate, both within the hospital and the community.”