The field of health and medicine offers many opportunities for social workers to positively impact clients and their families by working in inpatient and outpatient medical settings. While physicians and nurses focus on the physical health of a patient, social workers attend to the patient’s socio-emotional health needs. Thus, bringing social workers and physicians together in a medical setting provides a holistic approach to healthcare practice.
In medical settings, social workers provide a variety of psychosocial and care coordination services to individuals and families in times of crisis – while they are dealing with diagnoses, coping with illness, and striving to maintain their health. Pediatric social workers play a special role in the field of health and medicine, providing social work services specifically to children and their families who are battling medical challenges. For the pediatric social worker, a child with a serious illness is often the primary client, and the social worker provides services to the child and her/his family members. Alternatively, pediatric social workers might engage with children whose parents or other close family members have a health condition, and the social worker provides specialized support to the child.
There are many potential roles and job titles for social workers to fulfill in the expansive field of health and medicine. Social work students and practitioners interested in direct practice with children should consider a career as a pediatric social worker in a medical setting. A pediatric social worker’s role is likely to include the following key areas of practice:
Counseling and Psychosocial Services
Medical settings, like hospital systems and outpatient clinics, are often stressful environments for children and their families. In such settings, the family is typically dealing with the hospitalization, injury, or serious illness of a family member – all situations that can be significant disruptions or crises for the family system. In such situations of severe family distress, pediatric social workers act as a vital resource in providing emotional support and counseling to children and their family members. In this role, pediatric social workers intervene to support families through some of life’s most difficult moments.
Counseling services offered by pediatric social workers usually focus on:
- Helping children and family members to understand their child’s diagnosis, or helping children to understand their family members’ diagnosis
- Helping family members process and understand the impact of illness on all family members
- Helping children and their family members cope with the emotional trauma of hospitalization, injury, or illness
- Guiding parents in appropriate communication about illness and injury with their child
- Connecting families to support groups and/or other families with the same diagnosis
- Facilitating support groups
- Teaching stress-reduction techniques, like mindfulness practices
- Supporting families in making meaning of trauma and loss by exploring family spirituality, values, and beliefs
- Providing short-term counseling and crisis intervention for acute stressors
- Providing grief and loss counseling, and supporting families through end of life issues
Care Coordination and Medical System Navigation
Medical settings can be extremely difficult to navigate, and families involved in the medical system often come into contact with several care providers in different specialties each day. In addition, a new diagnosis or injury generally requires ongoing treatment through various visits, processes, and procedures. In this complex environment, pediatric social workers coordinate care between various providers and ensure families are aware of and understand what is required of them.
Providing guidance and support to families in navigating the medical system might include:
- Orienting families to the medical system, hospital logistics and layout, and the team of medical providers
- Working with teams of nurses, physicians, and other medical staff in developing a treatment plan and understanding patients’ needs
- Liaising or serving as the primary point of contact between families and medical care providers, and/or between various teams of care providers
- Communicating patients’ needs to medical care providers, and providing guidance on compassionate care to medical staff
- Maintaining consistent, comprehensive, and accurate records of all aspects of a patient’s care
- Reviewing medications and treatment instructions with families
- Collaborating with families to develop an appropriate plan for care
- Assisting parents with medical leaves of absence to care for children
- Helping families plan for and arrange child care as needed
- Connecting families to other needed resources to ensure they are able to be active in their child’s care
- Providing access to financial assistance programs
- Providing referrals to other agencies and services within and outside of the medical system
- Reviewing discharge instructions and follow-up treatments and procedures with families
Often, pediatric social workers are the most consistent point of contact for families, within and outside of the medical system, as they cope with family illness. While teams of doctors and nurses frequently rotate, and patients move through different units of a hospital as their condition or treatment progresses, the assigned pediatric social worker remains with the family through any potential change.
Through their in-depth knowledge of each client’s case, and their consistent contact with families throughout their involvement in the medical system, pediatric social workers are well positioned to advocate for the best possible care and resources for children and their families during particularly trying times. Pediatric social workers often interact with individuals and organizations outside of the medical system to ensure they understand and are accommodating of the family’s medical situation.
In their role as advocates, pediatric social workers can be instrumental in:
- Helping families understand their rights and responsibilities within the medical system
- Protecting client’s rights and respecting their choices in treatment decisions
- Interfacing with insurance companies to ensure maximum coverage/benefits
- Advocating for school and work accommodations to be made during hospitalization or treatment
- Ensuring care is client-centered
- Raising awareness of client concerns, questions, and priorities throughout their involvement with the medical system
Pediatric social workers play a vital role in supporting children and their families coping with illness in an intense medical environment. This career path certainly has its challenges, requiring social workers to navigate complex systems and provide support in the face of traumatic situations and family crises. However, the opportunity to offer support to families during their most trying times, and to witness the incredible strength and resilience of children battling illness and injury is a potentially rewarding experience for social workers with a passion for children’s health.