Meeting focuses on social work health care

Ashley VarnerAshley Varner, an oncology social worker at the DeCesaris Cancer Institute at Anne Arundel Medical Center, speaks about recruitment and retention during the “Strategies for Strengthening Health Care Social Work” meeting, which was held recently at NASW’s national office.

As health care in America explores new territory with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, social workers need to stake a claim to their roles as part of the health care team.

That sentiment was consistent among social work leaders from various health care settings who recently participated in a meeting called “Strategies for Strengthening Health Care Social Work.” The discussion was held in February at NASW’s national office.

Terry Altilio, social work coordinator at Beth Israel Medical Center’s Department of Pain Medicine and Palliative Care in New York City, was among the speakers. She said now is the time to promote the value of social work in health care.

“We have to assert our skill sets and show our integrity … ,” she said. “We need to be leaders, not followers.”

Altilio added that social workers have a “bird’s eye view” of a client.

“No one else has that training,” she said. “We listen differently than any other profession.”

Time is of the essence to promote the value of social work among colleagues, noted Krista Nelson, an oncology social worker from Providence Portland Medical Center in Portland, Ore.

She said in an age where social work services are being integrated into health care, social workers should highlight the economic benefits of client psychosocial care to administrators and peers.

“We need to think about what opportunities we have,” she said.

Taking the concept further, James Zabora, director of Life with Cancer at the Inova Health System in Fairfax, Va., said there is need to demonstrate the effectiveness of social workers in patient outcome reports.

“We need to be in the prevention arena,” he told attendees.

Zabora said it is known that distressed patients are more likely to be hospitalized.

“Mental health and health benefits need to come together,” he said, adding that both must be treated simultaneously to deliver maximum benefit for clients.

Health care prevention efforts are skills associated with social workers, said Betty Ruth, a clinical social work professor and director of the Dual Degree Program in Social Work and Public Health at Boston University.

Many of the services the profession provides are prevention-oriented, she told attendees.

“Social workers are doing prevention but we don’t call it that,” she said. “Because we don’t call it that, we don’t get any money for it.”

She noted that prevention of health disparities is vital to reducing health care costs.

“We need to back up and examine the money we spend on treatment,” Ruth said.

As an example of how health care is transforming, the Department of Veterans Affairs is changing the way it does business, said Carol Sheets, acting chief consultant for Care Management Social Work Services at the VA in Washington, D.C.

“We are going through a transformation of health care,” she said. “We are shifting to a patient-centered approach. It’s personalized patient treatment.”

She noted that the VA has more than 10,600 social workers among its 152 medical centers. “We continue to increase our workforce,” she said.

New programs also are part of the VA’s goals that involve social workers. Sheets said comprehensive efforts that address the health care issues of female veterans and those who live in rural areas are being developed and expanded.

In addition, “We are looking toward leveraging technology through tele-medicine, including video conferencing and even using social media,” she said.

Edward Woomer, president of the Society for Social Work Leadership in Health Care and associate administrator for the DuPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del., said social workers have made great strides in the field of health care.

“Social workers have moved up in the system. We’ve been fortunate in a lot of ways,” he said.

Substance abuse prevention is also something social workers are expertly trained to do, he said.

John Mistrangelo, a social worker and vice president of Adventist Behavioral Health in Rockville, Md., said he sees a need for more social workers in middle management positions as well as training to obtain those positions.

He added that social workers can provide services that benefit not only patients, but also the health care system as a whole.

“We’re taking a community approach to health care,” he said. “We’re keeping patients from being readmitted to the hospital. There is a bond between this community and these services.”

NASW CEO Elizabeth J. Clark said social workers need to be at the table in health care leadership and it would be beneficial for social workers to learn the business of health care.

Attendees broke into groups to suggest action steps that address public relations and communication; legislative and regulatory issues; allied organizations and professional collaboration; recruitment and retention; and leadership development.

Among the goals suggested:

  • Promote social work effectiveness research in health care settings, including measuring the impact of social work services on hospital readmission rates.
  • Promote social work involvement in the Affordable Care Act’s health care delivery models, including medical homes and accountable care organizations.
  • Identify and promote social work best practices in health care settings, both inpatient and outpatient
  • Collect and promote data of client success that results from social work interventions.
  • Develop a national movement that promotes social work in health care.
  • Pursue foundation funding for health care social work effectiveness studies.
  • Educate health care colleagues about the important role social workers play in patient-centered care.

Clark said input from attendees will be compiled into an action plan.

She noted that the approaching years of health care reform will prove to be the best opportunity to promote the value of social work in health care settings.

“It’s important to define what social work health care is and what it can be in the future,” she said.