Most healthcare providers arrange for and deliver social and community services on an ad hoc basis, but social workers specialize in it so they’re better positioned to address the social needs of patient populations.
“The problem is that those services are not always billable,” said Lisa de Saxe Zerden, senior associate dean at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work.
That isn’t preventing some systems from moving forward with creative employment of social workers.
Providence Health & Services’ Providence Beginnings program is a maternity support initiative for women who are likely to have high-risk pregnancies. The program helps women and their doctors develop and carry out maternity-care plans that reduce the likelihood of pregnancy complications and issues postpartum. “Our social workers help patients find resources in the community,” said Dr. Judy Marvin, an obstetrician hospitalist and senior medical director for women’s specialty practices at Providence Health and Services, part of Renton, Wash.-based Providence. “But we do not get reimbursed for much of the work that we do.”
Similarly, Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston has a connected wellness program for seniors focused on the linkage between stable, affordable housing and health outcomes. Social workers work alongside nurses and community resource specialists to connect program participants with the housing they need.
Last year, Amita Health and the Chicago Public Library partnered to have licensed clinical social workers serve people in their communities and help address some of the social determinants of health. That allowed them to deliver care to people who might have delayed it otherwise. That’s especially true of mental health services, which are often stigmatized, so people might not seek them otherwise.
“We’re meeting people where they are,” said Sue Warwick, a program director for Amita, a joint venture based in the Chicago area.
Baylor Scott & White Health, based in Temple, Texas, employs social workers to supervise and train community health workers to screen targeted patient populations for social needs. The model allows the health system’s social workers to operate at the top of their license and to address behavioral health needs, while community health workers act as trusted peers who help connect patients with community resources and manage chronic illnesses. It has allowed the health system to staff and scale the services of social workers to address the social determinants of health at an unprecedented level.