Mitigating the pandemic — social work was built for this

Mitigating the pandemic — social work was built for this
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As our nation works collectively to face the immediate crises and address inequitable outcomes brought by police violence, a history of systemic racism and COVID-19, social work services have never been more critical to health and health care. 

Since 1905, social workers have worked with people to remove barriers to health in and out of the hospital. The profession was catalyzed into nationwide action by the 1918 flu and World War I. Social work has been an integral but often overlooked part of the health care workforce ever since, however, there is still a lack of understanding about what we dowhich limits our reach and impact. 

Social workers care for and support the most marginalized and vulnerable among us, and work in many settings to develop, implement, and advocate for programs and policies to address health inequities. In health and social care settings, we evaluate and address barriers to health and wellbeing, like food insecurity, social isolation, unemployment, or mental health concerns. We build on the unique needs, strengths, and preferences of those we serve, making care responsive to what they want and not what we assume they need. 

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We understand that a one-size-fits-all approach will not achieve health equity, so our focus is on anticipating and mitigating barriers to health by working with the individual and their caregivers to customize both medical and community services. 

Our expertise in behavioral health and trauma-informed approach enables us to help individuals and their caregivers process anxieties around medical care. Whether it’s supporting someone with a cancer diagnosis to work through their fears about treatment, or navigating care options with an individual with an intellectual and developmental disability who is COVID-19 positive and unable to return to their community residence, we look at the whole person in the context of their environment. Many social workers are also members of communities of color and, because they are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and many other illnesses, have an intimate understanding of the glaring inequalities they must navigate this pandemic.  

Although social workers are often noticeably absent from the public acknowledgements honoring frontline workers, and are often overlooked as being either health care or mental health providers, we are integral members of the health care team. As such, we also provide support and care to our physician, nurse and allied health colleagues. During this pandemic, our role is critical as we help them navigate their anxiety around bringing the virus home to their families or process the secondary trauma they experience from witnessing all of the pain and suffering that COVID-19 has brought.

Many of us go into social work because we believe that a more equitable future is possible, yet misperceptions about our work can reduce our impact and slow our progress. Too often, a lack of understating of what we do also impacts workforce retention and recruitment. Specifically, our work in health care is often dependent on grant funding and may not be valued because of the communities we serve. The misunderstanding of our role on the health care team means that sometimes we are not treated as valued members of the care team. Sadly, these are long-term and serious issues that the social work profession has been organizing around for decades. This pandemic gives us an opportunity to do something about it.

While social workers are specialists in social care, we know that it takes a village and that many of the same challenges with integration and reimbursement that social workers face are also experienced by direct care workers, community health workers and peer recovery specialists who also provide critical support that must be recognized. 

From Jane Addams’ legacy organizing immigrant populations living in crowded housing, to decades of serving in hospitals and other health care settings, social workers have been weathering crises for decades and we will be there in the decades to come. We now call on health care and community leaders to elevate social work and social care so that we can continue to be there for you, your family, and your community as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold.

Robyn Golden, LCSW, is associate vice president of Population Health and Aging at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Bonnie Ewald, MA, is associate director of the Center for Health and Social Care Integration (CHaSCI) at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Teresa Moro, Ph.D, AM, LSW is program coordinator in the Center for Health and Social Care Integration (CHaSCI) at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.