Learn about North Carolina Licensure


Written by Jack Levinson

healthcare social worker helping couple

It’s no secret that navigating the healthcare system can be excruciatingly difficult. For the most disadvantaged among us, it can be all but impossible, placing people who are already in dire straits in situations that can compromise their long term well being.

When underserved people face health crises, social workers are there to help them get the best care possible.

This work can quite literally be life-saving for people who would otherwise not have the resources to manage their health needs.

If you’re an aspiring social worker with an interest in public health, there is a huge field of opportunity waiting for you in the world of healthcare social work.

Healthcare Social Work

A specialized arena within the broader social work field, healthcare social work is focused on supporting people in need through the complex healthcare system. This can look like many different things.

Some healthcare social workers provide emotional and mental health support to people undergoing health challenges, from coping with a new diagnosis to facing end-of-life care and everything in between. These social workers work in a counseling role, and can also bring their insights to medical teams to help guide a patient’s care holistically.

Other healthcare social workers act as coordinators and case managers for individuals within the medical system, helping them navigate the daunting bureaucracy one faces as an intermediary between hospitals, insurance providers, support groups, and more.

The hands-on assistance of healthcare social workers can make all the difference in getting someone the full extent of the care they need.

Indeed, many of the individuals aided by healthcare social workers are people who are facing other hardships, such as financial struggles, mental health issues, documentation status concerns, and more. Social workers by training already intimately understand the roots and symptoms of these issues, making them well-equipped to help such individuals through the added difficulty of managing their healthcare needs.

Who Employs Healthcare Social Workers?

Healthcare social workers are employed in a wide range of institutions and settings. These can include:

As you might imagine, the role of a social worker is subject to change dramatically based on their workplace, not only in terms of day-to-day roles and responsibilities but also in terms of which communities are impacted by your work.

When in your Master of Social Work (MSW) program, you will have the opportunity to complete your field work hours in at least one of the contexts listed above. This will provide invaluable exposure to the field, helping you gain a sense of the work you could do and how your specific work environment suits your skills and interests.

Social Work Practice in Healthcare: Advanced Approaches and Emerging Trends

The healthcare social work field is constantly evolving to better meet the needs of individuals and communities within the healthcare system. This means that as a healthcare social worker, you are likely to be regularly updating and refining your care methods. This is an exciting and engaging aspect of healthcare social work, allowing you to stay up to date on new approaches and trends within the field.

One industry wide trend that shows no signs of slowing down is the adoption of new technologies into healthcare practices. This includes telehealth and use of virtual platforms to provide medical information, which expands access to care to many individuals and families. For counselors and case managers whose work does not necessarily require them to meet patients in person, this can be especially helpful, allowing them to see more patients in less time.

Another advanced approach of healthcare social workers is increased collaboration with medical teams. This in part has been enabled by the new technologies mentioned above, which provide an easier way to consolidate information and expedite interdisciplinary collaboration. Consequently, healthcare social workers have become more involved than ever in care planning, leading to a care system that is more deeply attentive to patient needs and how their medical treatment will fit in with the rest of their lives.

Another development in healthcare is one that was partly ushered in by the social work field to begin with: a newfound commitment to cultural competence has been an important new part of healthcare training. Indeed, it was social workers who first flagged the importance of cultural competence in healthcare work, recognizing that specific communities are at particular risk for certain health concerns and that racial and gender biases have frequently kept people from receiving the treatment they need. By reforming healthcare training and education to address these concerns, social workers are not only working toward equity in the medical field but improving outcomes for individuals from marginalized communities.

As you can see, healthcare work is an exciting, fast-moving field that promises to continue to evolve in the years to come. If you’re looking for a path that will engage you in the long term, this field is sure to continue to expand and evolve in step with the times.

How to Become a Healthcare Social Worker

In many ways, becoming a healthcare social worker looks similar to becoming any other kind of social worker. The primary distinction is the path you choose during your educational and field work journey: by focusing early on healthcare-related social work services, you will be building out the education you need to take on these duties.

Healthcare Social Worker Educational Requirements

Healthcare social workers have the same educational requirements as any other social worker: they must hold a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree from an accredited institution. Thanks to the arrival of online degree programs and part-time scheduling possibilities, students have more opportunities than ever to get the degree they want without compromising other responsibilities like work, family obligations, and more.

Your MSW degree program will equip you with the skills, knowledge, and experience to change lives for the better as a healthcare social worker.

Completing an MSW program typically takes two years when following a full-time schedule. This includes a foundational year of coursework as well as a field work requirement that will comprise a significant amount of your second year of school. During your field work, you will work alongside practicing social workers, gaining practical know-how and on the ground experience that can help you build skills and get a detailed understanding of your future career path. For those who know they wish to pursue healthcare social work, this is an excellent opportunity to work at a clinic, hospital, or other medical setting to witness what the job entails.

Healthcare Social Worker Licensing Requirements

Even if you have completed your Master of Social Work degree program, you will not be able to find a full-fledged social worker position without in North Carolina receiving your professional licensing. This is overseen by the North Carolina Social Work Certification and Licensing Board (NCSWCLB).

There are two primary types of licensure that healthcare social workers pursue:

Choosing your license level will determine the responsibilities you are given as a social worker and the career path you will follow through the field.

Healthcare Social Worker Jobs

If you’re still deciding your social work specialty, the healthcare arena can be an amazing choice, in part because there are so many options within the field to focus on. This can allow social workers to zero in on the exact cause they’d like to devote their career to, as well as offering many different paths to pivot to if you’re looking to shake up your professional life later in your career.

Below is a list of possible job titles for healthcare social workers:

  • Clinical Social Worker
  • Medical Social Worker
  • Hospital Social Worker
  • Hospice Social Worker
  • Pediatric Medical Social Worker
  • Geriatric Social Worker
  • Oncology Social Worker
  • Rehabilitation Social Worker
  • Dialysis Social Worker
  • Home Health Social Worker
  • Psychiatric Social Worker
  • Transplant Social Worker
  • Emergency Department Social Worker
  • Outpatient Clinic Social Worker
  • Primary Care Social Worker
  • Community Health Social Worker
  • Substance Abuse Social Worker
  • Chronic Illness Social Worker
  • Neonatal Social Worker
  • Healthcare Navigator

As you can see, some of these roles are focused on specific health issues, allowing healthcare social workers to subspecialize to become experts in their particular line of work.

Healthcare Social Worker Salary

If you’re pursuing a career in healthcare social work, you’ve made a good choice from a career perspective.

Healthcare social workers are among the best-paid social workers in the field, in North Carolina and the rest of the country.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, social workers in the state of North Carolina earn a mean annual salary of $63,110 per year. This is quite close to the average for healthcare social workers throughout the United States, who earn a mean annual salary of $62,760 per year.

Because of this proximity, we can look to national averages to estimate the top 90th percentile of social work incomes in North Carolina, which the BLS does not provide. The BLS does, however, provide 90th percentile statistics for the country overall, which amount to $87,830 or more.

Where you work as a healthcare social worker can also impact your salary. The BLS reports the following mean annual salaries for healthcare social workers in the following settings (using national data):

It’s worth noting that social workers are often compensated for seniority and specialization. These social workers are also frequently the best candidates for leadership positions, which receive among the highest salaries in the field. This means that you are likely to start earning closer to the 90th percentile of social workers over the course of your career, especially if you choose to focus your work on a very specific subfield of healthcare social work.

All data is taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2022 report, accessed December 2023.


What degree do I need to become a healthcare social worker?

Like any other branch of social work, to become a healthcare social worker one must hold a Master of Social Work degree. You do not need to attend any additional programs to start on a healthcare social work track, but you may be able to specialize your studies by choosing healthcare-related electives. Your field work internship can also be invaluable in setting your career goals in motion, and it is highly recommended to choose an opportunity in the healthcare social work field to complete your hours.

Do I need to become an LCSW in order to work in a medical clinic?

No. In the social work field, Licensed Clinical Social Workers are professionals who are certified to perform counseling and therapeutic services, which are known as “clinical practice.” Confusingly for healthcare social workers, this does not necessarily mean social workers who work in clinics. Counselors and therapists can be employed by non-clinical organizations (such as schools and community centers), while social workers who do not practice counseling can be employed in medical clinics. If you are on the healthcare social work track, you should pursue LCSW licensing only if you intend to work as a therapist or counselor for those undergoing medical treatment. Otherwise, you will be able to take the roles you want with only a Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW) license.

Where do healthcare social workers work?

Healthcare social workers can work in a variety of settings, including hospitals and medical centers, clinics, community health centers, in-home practices, schools, and more.

What’s the difference between a healthcare social worker and a nurse?

Though they frequently work together, healthcare social workers and nurses have distinctly different roles that involve completely different forms of training. Nurses are trained to handle many medical procedures, acting as primary medical caregivers for patients with long-term health concerns (serious issues are of course referred to doctors). In order to perform these roles, they must complete nursing graduate programs, which are entirely different from MSW programs. Healthcare social workers, meanwhile, take responsibility for the other ramifications of health issues, from mental health and emotional needs to financial hardships, housing concerns, childcare needs, and more.

Can any social worker become a healthcare social worker?

Yes, though you may need specialized training if you don’t focus on healthcare-related social work while in your MSW program. This is because the healthcare field involves unique responsibilities and work environments that may differ dramatically from those of non-healthcare social workers. Because of this, it’s advised to think seriously about your intended focus area in the first year of your graduate program so that you can make the most of your field work opportunity and get relevant experience at the outset of your career.