Hospital Social Workers: Their Role and Challenges
30th June 2023
Hospital-based social workers play a vital role in the adult healthcare system. These dedicated professionals possess a unique set of skills, providing crucial support and assistance to patients and their families during an especially challenging time.
With mounting pressure to accelerate discharges and free up more hospital beds, hospital social workers are stretched to capacity. Inefficient technology and convoluted administration systems also leave them with less time to provide individualised social and emotional support for patients who need it.
What does a social worker in hospital do?
Hospital social workers have multi-dimensional roles. They are a crucial part of delivering person-centred care in hospital settings, ensuring that patients receive appropriate care and support.
Social workers advocate for a patient’s right to individual and personalised care, and provide practical and emotional support during difficult circumstances. They help patients and their families understand and come to terms with the impact of illness, disability, treatments, or deaths.
They also play a key role in determining if reablement, would be advantageous for the adult.
Most importantly, social workers are a bridge. They take a comprehensive approach to a patient’s care, contextualising health issues within a bigger picture that considers every aspect of a person’s life.
Hospital social workers see the whole person, not just the reason for admission. They understand that patients are more than just a broken hip or respiratory case – they are people with unique characteristics, circumstances, and care needs.
This often means gaining the trust of a patient to truly understand their background, navigating complex family dynamics and opposing wishes, and fighting for the best interests of the patient – while also balancing the targets and procedures set by their employers.
The role of social workers in discharge planning
For many hospital-based social workers in the UK, assisting patients with post-hospital care arrangements has become their main task.
By taking the lead in discharge planning, social workers aim to smooth the transition from hospital to home, ensuring patients can safely function in their usual environment. Their work helps reduce the number of readmissions – freeing up more hospital beds and easing pressure on health services.
Social workers work to address the unique needs of each patient, employing a holistic approach that includes the expertise of medical professionals while also considering the availability and accessibility of community-based services.
The role of social services within discharge planning involves three key stages:
- Comprehensive assessment of the patient’s individual needs. Practitioners carry out detailed assessments, including care needs, mental health, risk factors, and more.
- Formulating an appropriate and safe discharge plan. Social workers coordinate discharge planning with nurses, doctors and community resources to ensure the patient’s care needs will be met once they leave hospital. This includes a plan for reablement, if required. Social workers plan in conjunction with occupational therapists to determine the appropriate equipment or home adaptations necessary to create a safe and comfortable environment.
Implementing the plan in a timely manner. Once patients are medically fit, their care plan should already be in place to allow them to safely leave hospital – whether this is to return home, or to move to longer term residential care.
What challenges do hospital-based social workers face?
Hospital social workers may also be involved in Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards (DoLS) and ensuring the patient is protected across all accounts.
Ineffective communication and coordination
Effective communication and collaboration among multi-disciplinary teams, patients and families is crucial for successful discharge planning. However, ensuring that everyone involved is informed, engaged, and working toward the same goals can be a tricky task that delays discharge.
These are some of the communication barriers we encounter most often:
- Lack of standardised communication protocols.
- Limited availability of multi-disciplinary meetings.
- Difficulty in accessing relevant patient information.
- Insufficient opportunities for collaboration between healthcare teams.
Navigating cultural and linguistic differences
The multicultural nature of the UK population poses unique challenges for hospital-based social workers who will often encounter patients with language barriers, cultural differences, and healthcare beliefs very different to their own.
Social workers are already trained to be empathetic listeners and communicators, but navigating these challenges is a delicate art that takes additional time and resources – which often aren’t available.
Social workers in hospitals often have large caseloads, juggling multiple patients with varying needs and complexities. This can lead to time constraints, making it a challenge to provide the comprehensive level of support each individual needs.
Time-consuming bureaucratic and administrative tasks can also eat up a social worker’s time, especially if the technology is outdated and requires keying in multiple times. This leaves professionals with even less time to spend with their patients.
Lack of role clarity
There can sometimes be a lack of clarity regarding the scope and responsibilities of hospital-based social workers. This lack of understanding means that social workers can often feel pressured to relinquish their power and surrender the decision-making to the medical team – which can be extremely demoralising and poses a serious threat to a social worker’s professional identity. It also hinders the progress of creating a truly integrated health and care system.
Ethical and moral quandaries
The pressure to meet deadlines, hit targets, and free up hospital beds can put hospital-based social workers in a hard position when it comes to undertaking assessments of vulnerable people and their families. In a study by Ulster University, hospital-based social workers specifically mentioned the ethical challenges of trying to balance the needs of their patients with the requirements of their employers.
Many also mentioned the difficulty of trying to act in line with their own ethics and professional identity when faced with conflicting employer codes and guidelines.
Overcoming these challenges
We know that multi-disciplinary working is the key to creating a more effective and efficient health and care system. Social work intervention in healthcare settings has the potential to decrease length of admission, freeing up hospital beds at a faster rate according to one study.
So how can we improve the system to ensure hospital social workers and healthcare professionals have the tools needed to thrive as a multi-disciplinary team?
Using technology to improve communication and streamline workflows
Harnessing the power of technology helps social workers and healthcare professionals work more efficiently and collaboratively.
Liquidlogic’s software promotes joined-up working by offering access to a single, secure Shared Care Record that integrated care teams can view in real-time – improving inter-disciplinary communication and coordination.
Platform features include:
- Single Sign-On (SSO) – Social workers will spend less time remembering passwords and keying in duplicate information.
- Mobile access – Our secure mobile app allows authorised practitioners to access patient information at any time, in any place.
- Configurable assessment forms – Councils can create a workflow that works for their multi-disciplinary care teams.
- Third party integration – Our platform can be integrated with your existing technical infrastructure.
- Client portal -
Training for multi-disciplinary working
Hospital social workers and healthcare professionals both agreed that joint training was the key to improving integrated health and care services, the Ulster University study found.
Inter-disciplinary education offers each discipline the opportunity to learn how each of their skills contribute to a joined-up care system and helps define the roles within the team. This clarity is essential to collaborative working and improving patient care.
Developing confidence in their professional identity
Along with integrated training, hospital social workers must also develop a strong sense of self and professional identity to effectively assert themselves and define their role within integrated care teams.
With a clear understanding of their own values, knowledge, and skills, social workers will find it easier to communicate this to others. It also improves confidence and resilience, helping practitioners handle the challenges of collaborative working.
Look to the future
It’s clear that hospital-based social workers play a vital and indispensable role in the UK’s adult healthcare system, offering invaluable support to patients and their families during challenging times.
Recognising and valuing the contributions of hospital social workers is essential in building a healthcare landscape that truly prioritises the well-being of patients and their families.
By implementing strategies and technologies that improve communication, streamline workflows, and promote inter-disciplinary coordination, councils and hospitals can create an environment where social workers can thrive. This, in turn, will lead to better patient outcomes and a more compassionate and integrated healthcare system.
Let’s work together towards a future where hospital social workers are fully supported and equipped to make a lasting impact on the lives of their patients.
Heenan, D., & Birrell, D. (2019). Hospital-based social work: Challenges at the interface between health and social care. The British Journal of Social Work, 49(7), 1741-1758. https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcy114
Ron L. Evans and others, Timing of Social Work Intervention and Medical Patients' Length of Hospital Stay, Health & Social Work, Volume 14, Issue 4, November 1989, Pages 277–282, https://doi.org/10.1093/hsw/14.4.277