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Hidden health care heroes: social workers are invaluable

By The Health News Team | April 21, 2022
Sharp Grossmont Hospital’s social workers

Sharp Grossmont Hospital’s social workers.

Beyond the doctors, nurses and other clinicians who treat patients for their illnesses and injuries, there is a big-hearted corps of very specialized individuals. During the pandemic — and always — they are at the ready to help patients with their life challenges.

Specialized medical social workers are an invaluable part of Sharp’s hospital teams. In addition to medical help, patients often need support to navigate mental, socioeconomic, housing, dependency and other issues. Social workers are called on by clinical staff to provide this aid to patients.

Sharp Grossmont Hospital has a dedicated team of 25 social workers, including those who work directly for the hospital’s Behavioral Health Unit, and another 20 on the medical floors. Social workers must have a master’s degree in social work, and at Sharp Grossmont, more than half of the team are licensed clinical social workers (LCSW). This requires 3,200 postgraduate hours of supervised work experience and completion of the licensing exam.

Ensuring patients receive the care they truly need
Social workers assist a variety of patients with wide-ranging situations and challenges, and also serve as listeners and problem solvers. For example, patients who come to the hospital by way of the emergency department (ED) are often in the wrong place to begin with.

“There are so many social reasons that lead to somebody being brought to the hospital,” says Kathleen Black, lead medical social worker at Sharp Grossmont. “There’s a high socioeconomic need in East County and we’re the only hospital from here to El Centro. A lot of that feeds into the hospital being a societal safety net.”

There is also the reality of patients who cannot care for themselves but don’t necessarily need to be at the hospital. “People hit a wall and can’t take care of a family member with dementia, for example,” Black says. “Or perhaps there is a loved one who has become combative.”

According to Black, the hospital cannot refuse care to someone who comes to the ED, even when it clearly isn’t medical care that they need. That’s when a referral is made to her department, and the assigned social worker finds appropriate resources or placement for the person in need.

Social workers can help place the patient — before they are admitted to the hospital — at a facility they truly need and shepherd them to community resources for further assistance. Sharp’s social workers partner with many community providers and work closely with the San Diego Regional Center, the public conservator’s office, county case management, 211 and Family Health Centers, all in the name of getting people the help they need.

The many roles of a social worker
While many people think of social work as largely helping people experiencing homelessness, Black says those clients are a fraction of the patients they are called on to assist. Sharp’s social workers are found in the women’s hospital, Transitional Care Unit, Rehabilitation Services, the Care Transitions Intervention (CTI) program, and on each inpatient floor.

In addition, Sharp HospiceCare has 16 hospice and palliative care social workers, who are a key component of the hospice interdisciplinary team. There are other specialized team members as well, such as oncology social workers, who help people with cancer navigate their journey through support groups and other resources.

Social workers help manage a wide range of often sensitive issues related to patients, families and whatever situation might be at hand. “We may have a complicated surrogacy or adoption where perhaps, someone is flying in from another country to adopt a baby born in our women’s hospital,” Black says. “There are legalities to work out in that kind of situation.”

Other cases can include suspected neglect, assisting with difficult family dynamics and helping to figure out the identity of a “John or Jane Doe.” With COVID-19, the team has also been called upon more than ever to assist nursing units with end-of-life situations, when family couldn’t be there for various reasons.

“Social workers’ training to evaluate the biological, psychological and social factors of a situation, along with their ability to meet patients where they are, even if that be homeless, mentally ill, abused or grieving, brings a much-needed balance and perspective to the medical care provided to the patients of Sharp Grossmont Hospital,” says Black. “Campuswide, they are instrumental in providing advocacy, support and resources to patients, families and staff alike.”

This article is the second in a series of articles highlighting the hidden health care heroes of Sharp, whose dedication, compassion and commitment to excellence exemplify The Sharp Experience. Read the first in the series, “Hidden health care heroes: providing shelter and safety.”

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