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Not all of healthcare is quantitative; a specific diagnosis, particular treatment plan, a special prescription. A lot of it is qualitative: how we prevent future medical problems, how we feel about a prognosis, how we judge the proper care we'll need, how we cope with a stressful life change. A clinical social worker who concentrates on medical and public health issues largely deals with the qualitative aspect of our health. He or she is an advocate for patients, one who can explain healthcare resources and policies, assist in finding additional treatment, and offer guidance for how to cope with various psychosocial issues that may arise.
That doesn't mean this isn't also a scientific trade. Clinical medical social workers' day-to-day tasks could include ample research and mounds of paperwork. They may also diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders. And they undergo years of study, starting with an undergraduate program, followed by an advanced degree, and then concluding with approximately two years of supervised experience and a licensing exam before they receive their LCSW wings and get the chance to administer care.
Feeling empathy for people of all walks of life and at all ages is an important asset to have in this business. A social worker's purview could include improving the wellbeing of sick minors, evaluating a middle-aged cancer patient's progress during treatment, or assisting a senior citizen seeking home health care. Many of the medical social workers hired between now and 2020 will end up working with senior citizens and the elderly, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Expect a 34 percent employment spike by the decade's end, largely due to the comprehensive care needed for the aging baby boomer generation.
In 2011, clinical social workers earned approximately $48,620, the BLS reports. The best-paid in the industry had salaries in the low 70s, while the lowest-paid earned less than $32,000 a year. Hospitals are some of the best-paying employers, particularly those that specialize in psychiatric and substance abuse issues. Social workers employed to work in scientific research also earn comfortable salaries.
Earning a bachelor's degree in social work will allow a beginner to work as a case worker or mental health assistant. But all clinical social workers need to have an MSW—a master's degree in social work—which they usually earn from a two-year program. In addition to a program's mandated coursework, Robert Booth, the executive director of the Center for Clinical Social Work, encourages possible social workers to study biology and chemistry. "You'll be dealing with people who are using various kinds of drugs, both illegal recreational substances and then people who are on drug therapy. "So having an awareness of chemistry is important," he says. "It's also advisable to take a year or two of sociology to understand the systems of the culture."
To become a licensed clinical social worker you’ll have to sit through an exam. And before you can take the exam, you'll need to have approximately 3,000 hours or about two years of supervised clinical experience. But some of what is required to secure a job can't be taught. "A social worker must be compassionate," Booth says. "There's no way around that. You can have all the intellectual skills, but without a reservoir of compassion for people in all sorts of conditions, this wouldn't be the right sort of profession for you."