What Does a Medical Social Worker Do & How to Become One

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Find out what a medical social worker is, what a medical social worker job description looks like, essential skills, medical social worker salary, and the steps needed to get a medical social worker job.

[Featured image]  A medical social worker in green shirt sits at a desk in front of several computers

A medical social worker assists patients and their families in helping them understand and cope with a diagnosed illness and all the emotional turmoil that comes with it. They direct families to resources that assist with financial burdens, social needs, and emotional stress resulting from the diagnosis and work as an advocate for the patient to support them in navigating the medical system. Becoming a medical social worker requires graduate-level education, experience, and a license.

Job description of a medical social worker 

Medical social workers work with patients of all ages, from children on up, and with all kinds of diagnoses. Their duties and responsibilities will vary slightly according to their role, but in general, a medical social worker's job description will look like the following:

  • Work closely with doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals. 

  • Review new patient admissions to assess the needs of patients and their families.

  • Assess the patient’s social and psychological status to determine mental and emotional stress. 

  • Support patients and their families with education about their illness and possible treatment.

  • Counsel patients and their families who are distressed.

  • Help patients understand the financial resources and social support available to them.

  • Offer crisis intervention.

  • Work as an advocate for patients and families to help them understand the medical system and the options available to make informed decisions. 

  • Identify any mental health concerns and make appropriate referrals.

  • Facilitate communication between patients and other health care professionals.

  • Assist with hospital discharge to other facilities or return home. 

Work Environment of  a medical social worker

Medical social workers work closely with doctors, nurses, physical therapists, hospital administrators, and other health care professionals. Workplaces can vary, with most medical social workers employed in hospitals and others in hospices, rehabilitation centers, nursing homes, outpatient clinics, and home health agencies. 

Working hours will vary according to a medical social worker's place of work, but typically hours are full-time and require weekend, evening, and overnight work. 

The role can be stressful due to being in a fast-paced medical setting and given the nature of the work of supporting people through emotional times. However, it is also rewarding, where building relationships with patients and a role that offers a sense of fulfillment through making a difference is typical. A survey by Payscale found that medical social workers gave a higher-than-average score of 4.04 out of 5 for job satisfaction [1].

Skills of a medical social worker 

You can learn many specific skills you'll need on the job. However, to be effective as a medical social worker, there are certain essential skills:

Human skills:

  • Problem-solving

  • Decision making

  • Verbal and written communication

  • Interpersonal skills, including empathy, patience, listening

  • Cultural sensitivity 

  • Excellent organization

Technical skills:

  • Case management

  • Crisis intervention

  • Computer literacy

  • Advocacy 

Job outlook and salary information 

Employment for social workers is projected to grow by 9 percent between 2021 and 2031 [2], which is above average. The average basic medical social worker's salary is $67,054, which can rise to $87,000 when reaching more senior levels [3]. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the highest-paying industry for a medical social worker is scientific research and development services, receiving an average wage of $93,030 [4].

Read more: Is Health Care a Good Career Path? Outlook, Jobs, and More

How long does it take to become a medical social worker? 

It takes, on average, six years of study to become a medical social worker and up to 1,000 hours of work experience before applying for a license. Aspiring social workers take fieldwork as part of their study.

How to become a medical social worker 

To become a medical social worker, complete a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, fieldwork, and pass a licensure exam. You can also take specialized courses as part of professional development. 

Earn a bachelor’s degree in social work or a related field.

Step one is to earn a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) or a bachelor's degree in a related subject, such as psychology or sociology. A BSW is preferred and is especially significant for medical social workers as it includes classes on case management, which is an essential part of the role. 

Read more: BSW Degree: Your Guide to the Bachelor of Social Work

Earn a master’s degree in social work.

Most positions ask for a Master of Social Work (MSW). Choosing an accredited course by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) can open more doors because this is essential in most states to receive a license if you want to work in certain areas, such as hospitals. However, a license is not required for work in nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities, and assisted living facilities. 

Many options are available to take classes relating to health care and the medical field during an MSW, such as bereavement counseling and crisis intervention, as well as general social work classes that cross boundaries across fields. These include strengths-based therapy and problem-solving therapy.

Read more: Master of Social Work (MSW) Degree: A Guide

Complete an internship or practicum fieldwork requirements. 

Completing an internship or fieldwork as part of an MSW helps you gain hands-on experience and build up the hours needed to pass the program. Typically, students complete two placements alongside studying. 

If you don’t have the opportunity to take an internship or choose not to complete an MSW, you can gain experience through volunteering. Relevant previous experience is also valid. Employers are looking for experience, so clocking some hours is necessary. 

Pass ASWB exam to earn clinical licensure.

After completing a bachelor’s or additional master’s degree, you must take an exam to earn your social work license. The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) administers the test for the license. To receive a clinical level of license (the highest level), you will need to have an MSW, pass the ASWB exam, and have three years of experience working under a licensed clinician who can recommend licensure. 

Pass state licensure exam.

Different states have different rules when it comes to licensing. Some states make medical social workers pass a state licensure exam in addition to the exam administered by ASWB. You can apply for your license after completing all the above steps. 

Consider specialized certification.

In addition to qualifying and gaining a license, medical social workers can take specialized certifications to improve their knowledge in a particular area. This can be very beneficial for standing out against other candidates. Specialized areas may include pediatrics, oncology, or emergency and trauma.

Next steps 

If you are interested in a career in social work, you can find out more about whether it’s for you with a short course on social work practices. If you find medical social work particularly interesting, consider a course in supporting families and caregivers that can give you a specific entry point.

Article sources


Payscale. “Average Medical Social Worker Salary, https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Medical_Social_Worker/Salary.” Accessed March 28, 2023.

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