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Roles of a Medical Social Worker in the Outpatient Unit

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Medical social workers belong to a group known as health care social workers. Although a medical social worker typically works in the hospital setting, some may also work in outpatient settings such as medical clinics, outpatient care centers, primary care settings and mental health clinics. Although the role may vary from one organization to another, some common characteristics do exist.

Dual Functions and Psychosocial Issues

Health care social workers may be direct service or clinical social workers. The latter are mental health professionals who diagnose and treat mental illness. Direct-service social workers help people with problems to deal with the issues facing them or make connections that will get them the help they need, such as financial assistance or jobs. In either case, one of the important roles for the social worker in the outpatient arena is to identify psychosocial problems that might not be noticed by primary care or specialty medical personnel, who are dealing with other issues. The social worker in a fertility clinic, for example, is likely to be the professional who deals with a patient's depression over her reproductive problems.


In the outpatient setting, the emphasis is on prevention, according to the National Association of Social Workers. The social worker in a primary care clinic, for example, becomes familiar with issues related to chronic disease, such as depression, anxiety and grief. She will try to intervene early to prevent more serious problems, such as suicide. Social workers in specialty clinics often become experts in issues related to that field, and they can help educate patients and families and support both patients and the other professionals involved in care. Along this line, the social worker should recognize the potential for burnout, in herself or other health care professionals, and intervene early.

Dealing With Complexity

Health care is complex, especially for patients who have one or more chronic medical conditions. A patient in a dialysis clinic, for example, might see a nephrologist, an internist and a cardiologist for his kidneys, general medical and heart problems. The social worker helps the patient and his family coordinate care and navigate the various organizations or systems involved in his care. She might work with an insurance company to get a certain procedure covered, arrange a family meeting with a physician to discuss hospice care or help the patient's family admit him to a nursing home.


Social workers are referral experts, who know all about community services and options. A social worker might arrange for counseling for a woman who has been in a domestic violence situation or for foster care for an abused child. She can connect patients with drug and alcohol treatment, legal services and employment counseling. Social workers can find temporary or permanent housing for a homeless family or obtain parenting classes for a woman whose children are in the foster care system. She may also collaborate with other community agencies such as the WIC program or Medicaid agency to obtain services for patients in her clinic.


Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.

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