Are you curious about what medical social workers do? Read this interview with Sally Howell Dagerhardt, MSW, LCSW, a clinical social worker for a primary care setting. She has worked for the past six years in various departments and capacities of medical social work, including Geriatrics, Gero-Psychiatric Nursing Home Unit, and Primary Care. Prior to her medical social work positions, she was a working in residential and community mental health.
How did you decide to go into medical social work?
I was drawn to social work by the diversity of opportunities. After two years of being in rural mental health, I was feeling a bit burned out and I began to apply for opportunities within the medical field for a change of scenery. It would be dishonest to say that the pay increase wasn’t a big motivator as well. I firmly believe in the “clinical” (aka therapeutic) aspect of my social work practice as a medical social worker. I provide intervention during times of stress and crisis, and I assist patients in making changes to maintain their wellness. I also provide a more holistic, social work perspective to my medically trained co-workers – doctors, nurses, etc.
In your opinion, what are the best aspects of your job?
While there are problems and pitfalls with every employer, I try to actively focus on the best aspects of my job, and honestly, there are a number of them. First and foremost, I get to work directly with people and provide them with needed assistance. My employer values my position, as do my co-workers. I perform a variety of social work interventions throughout the day, and I enjoy the fact that each of my days is different. I think being a part of a medical team also helps with self-care, as I do not feel solely responsible for my patients’ care. I can take leave and know that my patients will be cared for, and we can collaborate as a team to ensure good care on a daily basis. I cannot leave out that another great aspect of my job is the pay and benefits, which also enable me to be more focused on my job, and are often unavailable in other social work positions.
What are the most challenging aspects of your job?
Two challenging aspects immediately come to mind. In each of my social work positions, including this one, navigating inadequate systems is always a challenge. Whether it’s your employer or an entity in the larger community upon whom you rely for assistance, there’s nothing more challenging or frustrating for me than inadequate resources or institutional barriers to care for someone who is working hard to make change. My second biggest challenge as a social worker will always be self-care and avoiding burnout, cynicism, etc.
What would you change about your job, if you could?
While I feel that my employer does an amazing job at valuing social work and the importance of what I can bring to the table, I still think that there are ways that my clinical skills could be better utilized. As a medical social worker in an outpatient primary care clinic, my job tasks are diverse, but at times I still feel compartmentalized. I think that this is a result of the way my employer is organized: primary care, mental health, specialty care, etc. and at times, it limits my ability to assist the “whole person” by directing me to refer patients to other services lines or departments for assistance, when my social work license would theoretically allow me to assist.
How long do you see yourself in this field?
Working for a large medical institution offers me a diversity of positions and moves that I can make within this organization. As a result, I plan to stay within the medical social work field indefinitely, secondary to the ability to work within different departments, thus avoiding burnout, and have an adequate retirement.
What advice would you give to someone considering medical social work as a career?
I think that there are a number of great opportunities within the medical field for social workers. I think as social workers we need to consider the diversity of our skills and the myriad of settings to which they can be applied. So many of us graduate from social work school with limited ideas as to the kind of work we would like to do. Opening your mind to the range of opportunities that exist for a licensed clinical social worker may improve your job satisfaction. There are so many environments where people in need can benefit from great social work intervention. It’s possible that you will improve your own job satisfaction and day to day life in the process.