In This Article Health Social Work

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Handbooks
  • Manuals and Guides
  • Journals
  • International Perspective
  • Roles in Health Care
  • Collaboration
  • Social Determinants of Health
  • Multicultural Practice and Policy
  • Community Health
  • Families
  • Origins of Health Social Work
  • Translation into Practice
  • Policy
  • Teaching

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Social Work Health Social Work
Sarah Gehlert
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0028


Health social workers provide psychosocial support to individuals, families, and communities that are faced with chronic, acute, or terminal illnesses, such as cancer, epilepsy, or AIDS. They are also active in efforts to prevent illnesses. They advise caregivers, counsel patients and their families and wider social networks, and help plan for needs at multiple levels. Health social workers are key members of cross-disciplinary teams in practice and research. They work closely with community stakeholders in community-based participatory research and other types of community collaborations to promote health. Health social workers may work as practitioners and researchers employed by universities, hospitals, nursing and personal care facilities, individual and family services agencies, or local governments. They also serve as policy makers and advocates. This entry identifies health social work resources with specific reference to social work’s adaptation of clinical practice and social and health care policy in a variety of health care settings. While the identified references are focused on social work applications, relevant ones dealing with clinical and policy-relevant issues that originate in other health professions also are listed.


A number of references provide overviews or introductory descriptions of health social work practice. Most divide health social work into domains. They differ in how these domains are conceptualized. Cowles 2003 divides health social work into four areas and discusses each in terms of a framework, including history, theoretical perspectives, problems, and ethics. It might best be used as an introduction to health social work by undergraduate and master’s students. Kerson 2002 takes an ecological approach to practice. It is less an introduction to the field than a guide to health social workers’ relationships to clients and systems and the process of health social work. As such it would be useful as an adjunct to fieldwork for undergraduate and graduate practice students. Beder 2006 is a good reference for undergraduate as well as graduate students wanting an idea of what health social workers in various areas of practice actually do. The author uses interviews with health social workers in practice to illustrate her descriptions of practice arenas. This text could be used in combination with one of the other two texts or the works mentioned in Handbooks.

  • Beder, Joan. 2006. Hospital social work: The interface of medicine and caring. New York: Routledge.

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    This short text is unique in its focus on specific types of health social workers, such as oncology and hospice social workers. In addition it includes chapters on rural and general medical social work. Content is based on interviews with 130 social workers, providing a richness useful to introductory or survey practice courses for undergraduate or graduate students.

  • Cowles, Lois A. Fort. 2003. Social work in the health field: A care perspective. New York: Haworth.

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    Provides a broad overview of social work in health care organized into four levels of care (primary care, hospitals, home health care or home care, and hospice). It focuses on skill and knowledge requirements in each of the four areas.

  • Kerson, Toba Schwaber. 2002. Boundary spanning: An ecological reinterpretation of social work practice in health and mental health systems. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

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    Emphasizes practice aspects of health social work. It situates social work in health and mental health systems and the client and social work relationship. The text also outlines the steps to practice in the area and four salient practice interventions and concludes with a discussion of the evaluation of practice effectiveness.

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