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Hospital Social Workers Are Patient Advocates

By Deb Parker Traunstein, LMSW, MBA


If you find yourself in the hospital feeling overwhelmed and unable to determine how you will manage after you are discharged, one of the people you can turn to for help is the hospital social worker. Medical social workers can be found in every setting of the modern health-care system, fr0m hospitals, nursing homes and other long-term care facilities to hospice and home care.


What kinds of issues do medical social workers help with?

Our main focus is on the nonmedical aspects of healing. We primarily address the psychosocial factors that interfere with recovery from a medical illness or injury. By way of illustration, let’s look at a patient who has come into the hospital with a fractured leg who will be discharged with crutches. In most cases this is a fairly straightforward course of treatment. It can become quite complicated, however, if this patient is also homeless, is the victim of domestic violence, has irreconcilable family difficulties, or has substance abuse problems. These are the kinds of factors medical social workers are trained to assess and assist with finding solutions.


In what ways does a hospital social worker help patients?

One of the basic principles of hospital social work is to advocate for self-determination for every patient, to ensure that his or her wishes are followed. If someone has the capacity to make their own decisions, their choices need to be honored. With this in mind, hospital social workers look at each individual patient within concentric circles of family, significant others, and their community. We provide counseling services, and help to connect patients and families to community resources, with the goal of creating a safe discharge plan with appropriate services in place before the patient leaves the hospital.


We work closely with patients and families at the end of life, to create links for support through the last stages of illness and loss. We are also trained in crisis intervention and are available to help victims of trauma. By facilitating family meetings we can often bring together family members who are in disagreement about the best course of treatment for an ill or injured relative. Hospital social workers are also able to help uninsured patients determine if they are eligible for Medicaid or other forms of health insurance, and apply for such coverage.


How does a patient connect with the hospital social worker?

A referral for social work services can be made by the patient’s physician, nurse, or other staff. The patient, family members, or a close friend can also request a meeting with the hospital social worker. Our two house social workers are available to patients and families on all of the medical-surgical floors, in the Emergency Department, the Intensive Care Unit, Maternal Child Health, oncology, radiation medicine, and the wound clinic. The Behavioral Services unit has its own social workers, and the inpatient medical rehabilitation unit (PMRU) has a dedicated social worker, as well. Social workers provide service in every area of the hospital for people of all ages and from all situations and socioeconomic backgrounds.


Today’s hospital social workers are clinical professionals who work as part of a multidisciplinary team to support patients and their families. Not all hospital patients need the services of a social worker, but we are here for those who do need emotional support, counseling, and advocacy. Hospital social workers are present in the hospital Monday through Friday, and are on call 24/7. If you, a family member, or friend could benefit from our services during a visit to the hospital, please don’t hesitate to ask for our help.


Deb Parker Traunstein is a licensed medical social worker with an MBA in health care, on staff at Cayuga Medical Center. She is also the coordinator of Palliative Care and the Swing Bed Program. You can reach her by calling (607) 274-4217 or via e-mail at


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