If you’ve ever tried to give up sugar or begin an exercise program, you know how hard behavior modification is. Personally, I barely made it through the 5 days of sugar withdrawal migraines. Yet somehow, as healthcare professionals, we seem to forget how difficult change is when prescribing treatment for our patients. “Improve your diet” “Exercise more” “Stop smoking” “Take this twice a day”. We rarely stop and think about the nitty gritty details of how to actually initiate and maintain meaningful behavior change. At best, our patients have the cognitive ability, motivation and adequate resources to change their daily habits to improve their health. At worst, there is cognitive deficit, lack of motivation, and socioeconomic complications. With limited time and scarce healthcare resources, how are we to help these patients? The short answer is, healthcare teams desperately need social workers to bridge the gap between what is said and done in the office to what is actually implemented at home.
I began my career in social work as a residential counselor working with adults living with major mental illness. In this role, I was a member of an interprofessional team made up of nurses, social workers, clinical counselors and psychiatrists. Our team was a well-oiled machine. We met regularly to comprehensively assess our patients’ needs and each person on the team had a unique role in assisting the patient to reach their goals. Psychiatrists prescribed medication with input from the rest of the team, counselors provided insight into psychological issues the patient was experiencing, nurses addressed medical issues, and social workers did basically everything else. I feel like we were the “catch all” members of the team. If a patient needed to apply for social security or food stamps, we helped them. If someone needed transport to an appointment, we provided it. If someone on my caseload needed help finding a job, I worked on their resume with them and brought them to apply and interview.
Patients’ goals could include anything from something as seemingly simple as learning how to grocery shop and cook to becoming independent in the area of medications. Some patients required more support than others. I could spend up to 5 hours a week working with one patient. Some individuals truly need that much help to become medically stable and independent.
This is just one story of how social workers are a vital part of a treatment team. Social work is a meaningful profession dedicated to action and the power to make a difference. The Steve Hicks School of Social Work at UT Austin puts it best - Social workers pull communities together, help individuals and families find solutions, advance changes in social policy, promote social justice, and foster human and global well-being.
As for me, I ultimately chose to pursue a career in pharmacy for a variety of different reasons. Among those, I wanted to focus on more clinical aspects of patient’s health while being able to make a decent living. I could have pursued more education for a higher salary, but the potential increase in pay would not have accounted for the large amount of loans needed for a higher degree.
The profession of social work as a whole is vastly overworked and underpaid. In other developed countries, roughly $2 is spent on social services per $1 spent on healthcare. In the United States, we spend 50 cents per dollar. I would like to say that salary wasn’t a big factor in my decision to change careers, but that wouldn’t be true. There were times I couldn’t survive financially. When I broke my arm in a snowboarding accident in 2010, I had to choose between paying my medical bills and buying food. At the end of the day, I had to get a second job. It is absolutely unacceptable that someone with a college education who is working full time cannot afford basic life expenses. This is the situation faced by many social workers in our country.
As a new generation of healthcare professionals, we have the power to impact change. We must recognize and appreciate the unique role of each member of the team and advocate for progressive, inclusive policies. We are no longer in the era of each man out for himself. We are in this together.