The healthcare field is a challenging career path that has long delivered support to some of the most vulnerable populations. As the healthcare field continues to advance, however, there are a number of adjustments that can be done to make healthcare more effective. One such adjustment includes making both healthcare and social services more accessible and more complementary. In making these adjustments, patients, their families, and society benefit as a whole.
There has been an increasing trend towards the inclusion of interprofessional collaborative care models in today’s healthcare system, meaning that physicians, nurses, social workers, psychologists, pharmacists, dieticians and others in caregiving professions have begun to collaborate more extensively to provide better care for their patients.
In essence, healthcare institutions have begun to recognize more and more that an interdisciplinary approach is essential to both effective patient care and organizational survival for the institutions themselves. This is especially true for rural areas who face a number of challenges related to healthcare access and poverty.
One study published in the Oxford University Press notes, “Interdisciplinary collaboration in health care are assuming greater importances as changes in social and economic conditions, demographics, and diseases converge to focus attention on models of health care delivery. Many major health care reform initiatives in government and in the private sector have emphasized elimination of duplication and fragmentation through referrals, networking, and coordination.”
Because we live in an age of health professional shortages, increased chronic conditions, economic inequality, and rampant drug abuse, it makes sense for those in caring professions to collaborate more frequently.
Collaborative care is especially effective for elderly patients who have complex health and social service needs. These high-need, high-cost patients are an estimated 5 percent of the population but account for nearly 50 percent of healthcare spending in the United States. Experts suggest that the percentage of high-need, high-cost individuals will increase in years to come, as the baby boomer population continues to age.
Many of their complex healthcare needs can be mitigated by being more proactive and inclusive with specific social services. A number of studies have shown, for example, that there are numerous unmet social needs such as gaps in healthcare, family violence, homelessness, a lack of nutrition among others that help to contribute to unhealthy conditions for the people who live in these situations. By adopting an interdisciplinary plan of action, social workers and health care providers are more easily able to give these people they care they need, while ultimately keeping the cost of their healthcare down.
We see this collaboration also being useful in the fight against opioid addiction. Throughout the country, a number of larger cities now allow individuals access to safe injection sites, where people can use drugs with sterile injection equipment, access to trained staff who are prepared with the antidote to opioid overdose should anything go wrong. In some cases, these individuals will come there for resources about how to receive treatment for addiction from social workers or other addiction specialists.
“The facility is all about harm reduction,” writes Scott Weiner, MD for Harvard Health Publishing.
“There are boxes of free supplies: needle kits so that people do not share needles, condoms for safe sex, kits to help treat small skin infections, even little clean cups to freebase injectable drugs. Naloxone kits are also provided free of charge. There is no judgment there. It is only about reducing a person’s risk of serious, life-threatening infections like HIV and hepatitis C, or the risk of death.”
While in an ideal world, no one would use hazardous drugs, it’s a reality that still must be addressed. These areas give people a space to do so where they are under supervision by medical professionals, and help to lessen the harm that individuals inflict on themselves.
It’s a controversial approach, but one that is backed by science and has been shown to have major public health benefits.
Because users had a safe space to inject, they were less likely to do so in public spaces, were more easily able to do so hygienically, and were more protected from fatal overdoses. It also helps to remove the stigma of addiction, meaning these people are more able to access help when they need it most.
Adding social workers to the healthcare model has proven to work in a number of hospitals and care facilities all over the country. And the results are palpable. The Institute for Healthcare Improvement notes that integrating social work into the healthcare model:
- Reduces depressive symptoms for patients.
- Reduces emergency department visits, hospitalizations, and readmissions.
- Decreases the burden on medical providers to address patients’ social needs, which can cause providers to have lower productivity.
- Provides additional services for patients, especially assessment of social and mental health needs.
- Brings perspective to the care team on each patient’s social and environmental context.
Overall, there is great promise for the integration of social workers in the healthcare setting. By expanding initiatives that integrate social workers into the healthcare field, patients, communities, and healthcare providers can all thrive.
About the author
Brooke Faulkner is a mom and writer in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. She loves researching the current state of medicine and sharing her findings with other families. You can find more of her writing on twitter or at contently.