The Social Determinants of Health and Social Worker Support

Health outcomes are not necessarily defined by medical factors. The social determinants of health (SDH) have an important influence on both health outcomes and health inequities. This article explains what the SDH are and how social workers provide support to clients experiencing the negative influences of the SDH.

What are the social determinants of health?

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines the SDH in the following statement:

“They are the conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live, and age, and the wider set of forces and systems shaping the conditions of daily life. These forces and systems include economic policies and systems, development agendas, social norms, social policies and political systems.”

Even more so than healthcare or lifestyle choices, research shows that social determinants can be more important in influencing health. The WHO goes on to state that health and illness follow a social gradient: the lower the socioeconomic position, the worse the health. 

The SDH can influence health equity in positive and negative ways. The following are examples of the SDH:

  • Income and social protection
  • Education
  • Unemployment and job security
  • Working life conditions
  • Food insecurity
  • Housing, basic amenities and the environment
  • Early childhood development
  • Social inclusion and non-discrimination
  • Structural conflict
  • Access to affordable health services of decent quality

The above list shows the broad scope of the SDH. Health inequities are the unfair and unavoidable differences in health status seen within and between countries. Measures can and have been taken to address the disparities in health equity. Social workers are on the frontlines of tackling those disparities.

How social workers help support clients

Social workers play a pivotal role in promoting better health outcomes for their clients and in addressing health inequities. Working across schools, hospitals, clinics, senior centers and other civic organizations, social workers can make a real difference in people’s lives. 

There are two major distinctions between the kinds of services that social workers offer: social workers providing ‘direct services’ to clients and social workers providing ‘clinical services’. Direct service social workers support and assist people coping with difficult issues in daily life as well as major life events. Clinical social workers diagnose and treat patients in terms of their emotional or behavioral concerns. 

Direct service social workers

In healthcare or hospital settings, direct service social workers help patients and their families understand and work through complex healthcare systems. This includes providing support and assistance with medical care and recovery, insurance policies, finances and advocating for patients’ healthcare rights. As the name suggests, this kind of social worker often gives the most immediate, ‘direct’ form of service. 

Direct service social workers also work in community centers, recreation facilities and outreach organizations. In those settings, social workers often work with clients dealing with drug and alcohol abuse and addiction, domestic abuse and divorce. They also work in public and private schools, supporting students with any emotional, developmental or educational issues they might be facing. They can also act as a bridge between students, their families, and external agencies or services. 

Clinical social workers

Clinical social workers specialize in the assessment, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental illness, emotional disturbances and other behavioral disturbances. Therapies are one of the most common treatment options offered by clinical social workers. They will perform services for individuals, groups and families working across settings such as private practice, hospitals, community mental health, primary care and agencies. Social workers providing clinical services are required to be licensed or certified at the clinical level in their area of expertise. 

A list of social services offered in the US, as well as some of the top social service companies in the world, can be found here.

Start on the path to becoming a social worker

You must be qualified to become a social worker. Keuka College offers online social work programs accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Founded in 1890 as a private undergraduate and graduate residential college and located in New York State’s Finger Lakes region, Keuka College’s degree programs in social work are regarded as some of the best in the country. 

To start on the path to becoming a social worker, students must first complete a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree program. This is required for entry-level social work jobs. A BSW will enhance your communication, ethics and core academic skills, while also giving you the opportunity to explore personal interests and access to clinical placements or practicums in real-world settings. 

Furthermore, a BSW gives you entry to direct service jobs that may not require an advanced social work degree or license. Direct service jobs available with a BSW include caseworker, social services assistant and program coordinator.

If you already have a bachelor’s degree and want to take the next steps in your career as a social worker, a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree could be the next step to take. An MSW degree is typically needed to gain employment in more specialized social work positions. These include clinical settings such as private practice, hospitals and mental health agencies. An MSW degree and clinical work placements also give you the opportunity to become a licensed social worker. 

Positions and settings available to MSW graduates include healthcare social workers and child and family social workers. A healthcare social worker may work in hospitals or medical facilities and can develop support plans, assess patient needs for outside resources, and assist with financial and insurance issues. A child and family social worker supports families and children. Their duties include helping to coordinate resources, making interventions to protect children, arranging adoptions and reuniting families. 

The need for social work services

Social work, while challenging, can be a very rewarding career for many. Social workers possess a specific but broad set of personal qualities. A good social worker is compassionate, caring, committed to social justice, and organized. Social workers must also adhere to strict professional standards, reflecting the integrity central to the profession.

As the need for health inequities continues to be addressed, so also does the need for good social workers. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates a growth rate of 9% for social worker positions between 2021 and 2031. If you want to make a difference, now is the time to consider a career in social work.

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