Social workers are highly-valued members of the healthcare community who work to improve peoples’ lives on multiple levels. While doctors and nurses focus primarily on stabilizing patients during medical emergencies and treating chronic diseases, social workers take a more holistic approach to well-being.
The valuable contributions of social workers is no secret and is officially recognized every March, which has been declared, “Social Work Month.” But this year’s commemoration is extra special for one obvious reason—COVID-19. In fact, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) has given March 2021 a pandemic-related theme, “Social workers are essential.”
Here’s why social workers matter now more than ever and ways the community can support their efforts.
The ongoing pandemic has been a primary topic of conversation for most Americans for nearly a year. And while everyone has been impacted by the unprecedented calamity, social workers have been hit much harder than most people. They have literally been on the front lines for months, putting their own health and well-being at risk.
Social workers have richly lived up to the classification, “essential.” Their job was already difficult, but COVID-19 further complicated most aspects of work. New questions had to be addressed, such as, “How does one discharge a patient home from the hospital when his wife has tested positive for coronavirus?”
The numerous complications and stresses created by COVID-19 are enough to overwhelm even the most dedicated social workers. They have faced new challenges daily, and patients’ lives have depended on their decisions. And that’s not even factoring in their own increased health risk due to virus exposure and related effects on their family and loved ones.
Social Determinants of Health
Social workers have helped to pioneer medicine’s newer focus on “social determinants of health.” The discipline has been around a few years but is still in its infancy when compared to traditional healthcare priorities. And as one might expect, COVID-19’s effects rapidly advanced the cause and justified its premises.
Medical professionals who consider social determinants of health view patients holistically. For example, they might look at a person with heart disease and ask how their socio-economic hardships or lack of access to healthy food contribute to their condition. Given this macro focus, they will then work to find solutions to address the patient’s social disadvantages. The social worker still knows her patient needs doctor-prescribed medication but might also work to find ways to improve lifestyle and access to good nutrition.
The onset of COVID-19 helped to further highlight social inequities that directly impact health. The virus affected far more people on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. These folks were more likely to contract COVID-19 due to crowded living conditions. And they were more prone to deadly complications resulting from higher rates of preexisting conditions, such as hypertension and diabetes.
Seniors & Vulnerable Populations
While social determinants of health apply to patients of all ages, seniors and other vulnerable populations often suffer more inequities that affect their well-being. For example, many seniors live in poverty and therefore suffer poor nutrition. And people who lack reliable transportation are far less likely to fill prescriptions and adhere to medication regimens.
Once again, COVID-19 hit these populations particularly hard, and social workers were left to literally fight for peoples’ lives. Difficult decisions regarding hospital discharge logistics and home health care options were further complicated. And nursing facilities had limited capacity to accept patients who needed additional rehabilitation prior to going home.
Social workers assisting seniors and vulnerable populations have had to think multi-dimensionally over the past year. It was no longer enough to ensure patients had a safe home to return to with a bed, running water, and electricity. Instead, they had to now take note of COVID-19 risk and whether the patient would have access to food while social-distancing in the home alone. Social workers also had to grapple with increased patient non-compliance, knowing scared seniors were less likely to make follow-up doctors’ appointments or re-fill medications.
How the Community Can Help Social Workers
It’s easy to point out how challenging the past year has been for social workers in light of COVID-19. But highlighting the difficulties doesn’t actually address the problems. While there seems to be light at the end of the pandemic’s tunnel, the broader community should still work to assist social workers in their noble cause. And people shouldn’t forget about their ongoing contributions that benefit a society with or without COVID-19.
First, the community must support social workers in their efforts to address social determinants of health. A grocery store, for example, might create a program to provide fruits and vegetables to under-served populations. Or a pharmacy could partner with the local hospital in a program to improve medication adherence. Even gyms and community centers can do their part by developing exercise programs for seniors and vulnerable patient populations.
Social workers can also be introduced to technology that makes their jobs easier while promoting patient health. For example, telehealth tools help monitor patient vitals, improving disease management and preventing medical emergencies. And personal emergency response solutions (PERS), such as LifeFone, provide an affordable “virtual safety net” for home-bound seniors and other at-risk patients.
More specifically, LifeFone can passively detect dangerous falls and contact emergency responders if necessary. The tool can also alert subscribers to environmental hazards, such as fires and carbon monoxide, which disproportionately affect older folks and those on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. LifeFone can even aid social workers by providing daily patient check-in calls to help improve medication adherence, symptom tracking, and the overall management of chronic disease.
It’s great that social workers have a month dedicated to their many contributions. But a pat on the back isn’t enough. The broader community needs to join forces with social workers by providing them with resources and tools to support their efforts. COVID-19 has proven that addressing the social determinants of health is a worthy and pragmatic endeavor. And social workers will continue to take the lead in these efforts!
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