Medical Social Worker: Career and Salary Overview
Medical social workers (also called healthcare or health social workers) provide psychosocial treatment in healthcare settings. These professionals assist patients suffering from mental health issues associated with acute, chronic, and traumatic illnesses and conditions. They also advise families of patients, help patients navigate services, and coordinate inpatient discharges and transition to outpatient care.
Medical social workers join and collaborate with interdisciplinary teams of healthcare professionals. According to standards set by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), medical social workers who diagnose behavioral and mental health issues and provide psychotherapy must hold a master of social work (MSW) and obtain a clinical social work license or work under supervision.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports a median annual wage of $56,750 for healthcare social workers, with the top 10% making an $86,130 median annual salary.
Our guide provides more details about becoming a medical social worker, including additional salary information, projected job growth rates, and the educational, licensing, and certification processes involved in becoming a medical social worker.
Frequently Asked Questions
How much does a medical social worker make an hour?
The median annual hourly wage for medical social workers totals $27.29, with those in the lowest 10th percentile making $16.83 an hour and the upper 90th percentile earning $41.41 an hour. The top-paying industry for medical social workers, computer systems design and related services, pays an hourly mean wage of $35.52.
Where do medical social workers work?
Hospital social workers hold the highest employment levels in the profession, with 46,230 working in general medical and surgical hospitals. Other top employers include individual and family services, home healthcare, nursing care facilities, and outpatient care centers. Some professionals find jobs at computer systems design firms, in education, or at other organizations.
How long does it take to become a medical social worker?
Medical social workers need at least a bachelor's degree in social work (BSW). Those providing clinical services independently, including diagnoses of mental and behavioral health disorders and psychotherapy, also need an MSW. Most BSWs take four years to complete, and MSWs typically extend education paths by an additional two years.
Is a medical social worker a mandated reporter?
Pursuant to the NASW Code of Ethics, along with state laws, medical social workers must report any suspicion or knowledge of abuse, neglect, or exploitation of children and, in some jurisdictions, other vulnerable populations, such as the elderly. State laws protect the reporters' identities and provide immunity from lawsuits concerning the reports.
Top Paying Industries for Medical Social Workers
The BLS reports computer systems design and related services as the industry that pays medical social workers the most money, with an annual mean wage of $73,800. Rounding out the top five highest-paying industries, religious organizations pay $72,730, followed by junior colleges at which healthcare social workers earn $69,600, general medical and surgical hospitals paying $65,908, and other ambulatory healthcare services, which pay an annual mean salary of $65,080.
Top Paying States for Medical Social Workers
Healthcare social workers earn the highest wages in California, which offers an annual mean wage of $79,620, the District of Columbia, paying $74,160, Oregon at $74,050, Connecticut reporting $72,980, and Nevada, which pays $72,640. According to the NASW, the western U.S. and the northeast tend to pay higher salaries than the southern or midwestern regions.
California also tops the list of states employing the highest levels of medical social workers, with 19,020 employed. New York occupies the second spot, with 15,720 earning $61,470, followed by Florida paying its 10,690 medical social workers $52,700, Massachusetts with 10,280 paid $61,650, and Texas with 10,250 making $58,430.
Top Paying Metropolitan Areas for Medical Social Workers
California cities dominate the BLS rankings for highest-paying metropolitan areas, occupying the top seven spots: Vallejo-Fairfield paying an annual mean wage of $90,120; San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara at $89,620; Salinas at $89,500; San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward at $86,560; Napa at $84,370; Fresno at $83,550; and Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim at $83,430.
Completing the top-10 rankings, Springfield, Ohio, which pays $83,000, followed by Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, Connecticut, at $82,930 and Laredo, Texas, at $81,610.
The cities with the highest employment levels of medical social workers include the New York metropolitan area with 14,180 paid $63,980, the Los Angeles area whose 7,600 medical social workers make about $83,430, the Boston area with 5,350 making around $64,580, the Miami area with 5,020, paid $50,950, and the Chicago area, which pays its 4,250 medical social workers an average $56,830.
Salary and Job Growth for Medical Social Workers
In addition to ranking medical social workers among the highest paid social workers, the BLS projects a 14% increase in employment of healthcare social workers between 2019 and 2029 -- a growth rate that outpaces the average rate for all occupations. The agency cites an ongoing rise in medical spending for the projected increase in job prospects, which should particularly benefit clinical social workers who can provide treatment and diagnostic services.
However, the NASW cautions that medical social workers may experience impacts from shifts in healthcare financing and delivery methods, along with a dearth in social work effectiveness data. These factors have resulted in fewer social work services in some healthcare sectors, but may be offset if the Affordable Care Act (ACA) undergoes expansion. If more patients receive coverage for mental health services under the ACA, additional qualified medical social workers will be needed to meet demand.
The BLS notes that the aging population and their family members will continue to rely on healthcare social workers for lifestyle counseling, medication, and treatment for behavioral and mental health issues.
How to Become a Medical Social Worker
The first step to becoming a medical social worker is to earn a bachelor of social work. Some employers, particularly for entry-level positions, may accept a bachelor's degree in a related field like sociology or psychology. BSW-holders can find employment as caseworkers and mental health assistants.
To become a licensed clinical social worker in a healthcare setting providing diagnostic and treatment services, you must obtain an MSW. Licensure requirements vary by state, but typically include at least two years of supervised postgraduate clinical experience and a passing score on the clinical licensing exam. In addition, the NASW requires an MSW for its certification in healthcare.
Schools offer MSW degrees on campus or through distance learning. Program completion usually takes two years. Applicants do not necessarily need a BSW, as many MSW programs accept degrees in related fields, but BSW-holders may be able to earn their MSW in one year.
Licensure and Certification Requirements
Medical social workers need a state license if they want to practice clinical social work. Some states offer licensure at the BSW level and non-clinical MSW level, but those credentials do not allow healthcare social workers to diagnose conditions or provide treatment as licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs).
Eligible LCSW applicants need an MSW from a program accredited by the Council for Social Work Education and 2-3 years of supervised clinical experience. Once completed, candidates sit for the clinical exam administered by the Association of Social Work Boards. Becoming a Certified Social Worker in Healthcare carries the same eligibility requirements as licensure.