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Health care social worker salary & career outlook

Health care social workers aim to foster understanding between patients and health care providers, particularly in cases of potentially life-altering diagnoses, such as Alzheimer's. They often provide patients with information on home health or community services, and they can help doctors and other medical professionals recognize the impact of major illnesses on patients' mental and emotional condition.

Job duties and responsibilities

Apart from the general duties of bridge-building between patients and providers, some health care social workers choose to specialize in one particular type of care or patient. Gerontological social workers can help senior citizens find home care services or coordinate care in assisted living facilities. Palliative care social workers help patients of all ages manage chronic or intense pain and help promote awareness of treatment options.

Hospice social workers help patients and their families cope with cases of terminal illness and adjust to end-of-life decisions. And medical social workers interface between hospital inpatient programs and the community at large, connecting discharged patients to community agencies and other resources that can help to ease the transition from hospital care back to everyday life.

How to become a health care social worker

Although some positions may be available to graduates from a social work bachelor's degree program, only 11 percent of health care social workers surveyed by the Occupational Information Network (also known as O*NET) had ended their education at the bachelor's level. By contrast, around 85 percent of professionals in the field had earned at least a master degree.

Social worker educational programs focus on preparing students for direct-service positions, teaching them about human behavior, welfare policy and health care. In some cases, students can complete at least part of their health care social worker education online. By investing in the right training, online or on campus, you can work toward the potential of a meaningful career helping others while also building a livelihood for yourself.

Health care social worker salary trends

As with most careers, health care social workers' salaries can vary significantly from one position to the next. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the mean health care social worker salary in 2013 was $52,520 nationwide, with the bottom-paid 10 percent earning up to $31,790 yearly and the top-earning 10 percent taking home $75,140 or more.

The industry in which health care social workers find employment ranks among the more influential forces at work on individual salary expectations, according to BLS data. Here are the industries that offered the five highest annual average salaries for health care social worker in 2013:

  • Health and personal care stores: $72,840
  • Specialty hospitals, except psychiatric and substance abuse: $62,280
  • Employment services: $60,100
  • Insurance agencies and brokerages: $60,000
  • Insurance carriers: $59,010

Location is another factor that can affect salary, particularly along with regional cost of living. These states ranked high on a 2014 affordability study done by the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC), and, according to the BLS, health care social workers also earned a comfortable average annual salary in 2013:

  • Texas: $55,310; ranked 12th in affordability
  • Utah: $56,490; ranked 13th in affordability
  • Wyoming: $52,200; ranked 14th in affordability
  • Indiana: $48,590; ranked 5th in affordability

The Sherman-Denison metropolitan area in northeastern Texas checked in as potentially the best U.S. region for health care social workers, boasting a mean annual wage of $78,720 in the nation's 12th-most affordable state.

Career outlook for health care social workers

According to the BLS, employment opportunities among health care social workers are expected to see 27 percent growth nationwide between 2012 and 2022, resulting in nearly 40,000 new positions. The generally aging U.S. population is cited as the prime driver of growth in the field, which is expected at a much faster rate than the average for all occupations.

A few individual states are expected to see even better growth than the national projections. According to Projections Central, these states have unusually high growth projections for health care social workers during the 2010-20 decade:

  • Utah: 39.8%
  • Florida: 30.1%
  • Colorado: 28.8%
  • Idaho: 28.7%
  • South Carolina: 28.5%
  • Arizona: 27.8%

To get started toward a rewarding career helping people get well and families feel better, look into health care social work degree programs and see if this job could be a good fit for you.

Sources:

Cost of Living Data Series: First Quarter 2014, Missouri Economic Research and Information Center, Missouri Department of Economic Development, http://www.missourieconomy.org/indicators/cost_of_living/index.stm

Long Term Occupational Projections for Health Care Social Workers, Projections Central,
http://www.projectionscentral.com/Projections/LongTerm

Health Care Social Workers, Occupational Information Network, http://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/21-1022.00

Occupational Employment and Wages: Health Care Social Workers, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, May 2013,
http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes211022.htm

Social Workers, "Occupational Outlook Handbook 2014-15 Edition," Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Jan. 8, 2014,
http:// www.bls.gov/ooh/Community-and-Social-Service/Social-workers.htm