6 Ways Social Workers Can Bridge Healthcare Gaps in the Post-Reform Period

Friday, May 29th, 2015
This post was written by Chris Ingrao

Editor’s Note: The following excerpt has been reprinted with permission from the Simmons School of Social Work.

With the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) increased emphasis on preventive care and community-based treatment, social workers have an opportunity to bridge the gap between physical and mental health, taking on the role of a care coordinator and working between patients and physicians.

The New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation defines care coordinators as “social workers who work with patients to create a plan that addresses mental health, physical, and social service needs.” These services can include:

  • Community resource planning and coordination;
  • Connecting patients with specialists and other healthcare providers;
  • Advance directives;
  • Helping patients understand chronic conditions;
  • Crisis intervention;
  • Counseling for emotional adjustments and lifestyle changes: and
  • Assistance with legal issues, transportation, or applications for financial aid.

While the benefits of community-based treatment and preventive care are already widely recognized, the ACA further incentivizes hospitals and care providers, imposing sanctions when patients come back too soon after being released, increasing the value of community-based preventive care programs. One such program is a Health Home, a free program (not a physical location) that helps patients manage the care and services that they need. In a health home, beneficiaries are paired with care coordinators who help them better understand and manage their conditions outside of the hospital setting.

Social Workers’ Role in Healthcare Reform

The ACA specifically mentions social workers as key players in implementing healthcare reform, which means they will likely have an opportunity to shape policy by advising policymakers on the following aspects of reform:

  • Effect and influence of social and environmental factors: Healthcare issues are much larger than the individual, and social workers will recognize how policy should best account for these factors.
  • Appropriate timeline and perspective: Social workers interact with individuals of all ages and think in terms of a life span, as opposed to short-term goals.
  • Advocacy: Social workers concern themselves with matters that extend beyond their individual clients. Social equity surrounding the access of care is a paramount concern of social work professionals, and as a result, social workers can become healthcare advocates in their communities.
  • Comprehensive care planning: Effective care, and thus policy, must take into account families, communities, and service providers.
  • Access expansion: Social workers understand that between human services, clinics, hospitals, mental health facilities, the community, and the home, there are many places where access to care is denied or not aligned with other phases of treatment.
  • Social work education: Medical education typically focuses on identifying and treating disease and physical illness, while social work education focuses instead on prevention, community support, and case management.

In the future, there will be more social workers bringing their unique educational background to the healthcare system. Significant post-ACA expansions to healthcare services, particularly for low-income individuals, as well as an emphasis on community-based preventive care, will likely create more career opportunities for social workers in the United States.

With more people than ever obtaining healthcare coverage, there will be a high demand for social workers that can act as care coordinators to help recipients connect their benefits across their care providers, communities, and homes.

As the healthcare landscape continues to change, social workers will be key players in advising and implementing improvements.

Read this post in its entirety at the Simmons School for Social Work. The oldest school of social work in the country, Simmons School of Social Work (SSW) was founded in 1904 as a joint venture with Harvard University. Today, SSW offers a rigorous, clinical social work curriculum that prepares students for direct practice with individuals, groups, and families. This post was authored by Chris Ingrao, the community manager for SocialWork@Simmons, the online MSW offered through the Simmons School of Social Work.

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