March is National Professional Social Work Month, which recognizes the professionals who guide and support patients in a wide range of settings. UAB Medicine salutes our medical social workers who assist patients with many aspects of illness, hospital stays, and the transition to home or the next level of care.
In addition to the medical care patients receive during a hospital visit, they also may face many practical challenges. For example, what if the patient’s spouse uses a wheelchair and needs help navigating the hospital? What if the patient needs to speak to his or her insurance company about coverage but is too weak to have a telephone conversation? A patient may wish to make decisions about end-of-life care but needs help communicating with the care team and family members about his or her choices. Then there are many common questions. What are the best local options for home care and long-term recovery? Who has the best prices on medical supplies, and who delivers?
In all of those cases and many others, the patient or the care team calls a social worker. Social workers provide counseling to help resolve the social, financial, and psychological problems related to various health conditions. They also:
- Help doctors, nurses, and other clinical staff recognize unique social and emotional issues related to a patient’s illness
- Assist patients and their families in finding national, state, institutional, community, and pharmaceutical resources
- Arrange for the transition to home health, hospice care, durable medical equipment, and placement in nursing facilities
- Make arrangements for palliative care and counseling for patients and families
In short, social workers help patients navigate the entire medical system, acting as partners in what can be a complex health care journey.
Overcoming Barriers to Care
The theme for National Social Work Month 2023 is, “Social Work Breaks Barriers.” That applies to the many ways that all social workers help others get past financial, institutional, and other obstacles to find the resources they need. Marian Stanton, DHA, LICSW, with UAB Medicine’s Department of Care Transitions, says this is especially true for social workers at UAB.
“I think I speak for all of my colleagues when I say that much of our job satisfaction comes from seeing a patient overcome the many obstacles a medical situation can bring,” Stanton says. “In terms of helping patients understand numerous medical details and communicate with their care team, social workers are the glue that holds together all the disciplines involved in their care. As for overcoming the everyday life obstacles that a serious illness might create, we are there with a hands-on approach to finding solutions and resources. This is especially important in one category of our field, known as complex social work. Those are cases in which patients have complicating factors, such as a criminal past, intellectual disabilities, undocumented status, traumatic brain injury, or other issues that can greatly increase the difficulty of managing their treatment.”
Lindsey Murphy, LICSW, also with the UAB Department of Care Transitions, manages a team of care transition associates (CTAs) in oncology, outpatient services, and women’s services. Giving patients confidence that they can get past barriers along their treatment journey is a main goal of social work.
“When people are most vulnerable, when they are too sick and exhausted to handle day-to-day responsibilities and losing their income and independence, first and foremost we try to give them hope,” Murphy says. “A cancer diagnosis, for example, can disrupt your life in so many ways, no matter what your prior financial situation may have been. So, a big part of our work is walking a patient through the actual possibilities of getting the support they need. Our CTAs make it clear that someone is looking into those details, so the patient doesn’t have to. There are other obstacles for certain patients who come from different cultures and who may have certain values that influence how they manage their health. Our workers are trained to understand those values and cultural issues.”
Partnering with Patients
For social workers, helping patients get past barriers to the best level of care is a process that often begins with major challenges on day one. Alison Garretson, RN, associate vice president of Care Transitions, says UAB Medicine’s resources allow social workers to partner with patients to meet those challenges.
“We had a case in which a patient had simply run out of places to turn to,” Garretson says. “This patient had been in and out of group homes and just truly struggled to function in a household with others. We don’t normally work Sundays, but our worker found a respite home for that patient over the weekend. Whatever else was needed could be handled later, but in that moment we were able to help a patient get out of the rain and into a warm bed. It shows that our vast amount of resources at UAB allows us to meet patients where they are, no matter how challenging their situation might be. We can take time with them. I think of what we do as becoming partners with the patient, and that’s the kind of thing that brings me joy.”