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I’ve been writing this column for years now and have given appropriate kudos to a variety of disciplines within the healthcare realm. But I’m not sure I’ve explicitly called out social workers for the tremendous value the profession brings to healthcare, specifically as it relates to the behavioral health component of primary care.

I’ve been a personal supporter and advocate of social workers as far back as 20 years ago, when the Medical Network One CMO’s primary care practice used their services to help coordinate community resources for patients with needs beyond traditional medical care. Our physicians organization also included social workers in our Community Care Travel Teams (CCTT) which we launched in the mid 2000’s to bring a multi/cross-disciplinary team of healthcare professionals into the primary care setting to help physicians better serve patients with chronic conditions and multiple co-morbidities.

So, what is the impetus for publicly singling out social workers for admiration now? I think our nation’s collective emotional health was teetering before the pandemic. As we emerge from lockdowns, remote learning and working, and job and family juggling amid a hyper-partisan environment and a frightening war, we are all hurting in our own way to varying degrees. Increasingly, though, we appear to be approaching a full-blown behavioral health crisis as evidenced by both claims data and anecdotal reporting on all ages, but notably among children and teens. We need social workers now, more than ever.

First, social workers, by education, training, and experience are one of our best resources for understanding and acting upon the social determinants of health (#SDOH). To those for whom the pandemic brought even greater uncertainties about access to healthcare, medication, food, transportation, education, advocacy and overall safety and wellbeing, social workers play a pivotal role in connecting the dots to accessing community tools and resources that can counter the harsh realities of living in the “wrong” zip code.

Yet this behavioral health crisis crosses all geographic and socioeconomic lines, too. Individuals and families with means to afford good quality healthcare and education are also stricken with anxiety and a sense of helplessness that can be mitigated or resolved through the services of a social worker. In either scenario, the social work profession is a solution provider with boots on the ground.

Within the context of primary care and the patient-centered medical home, the physician can do a warm hand-off to a social worker within the practice to coordinate additional services, whether they be provided through a community organization (i.e., Meals on Wheels or other senior support services) or community mental health program, or a specialty provider such as a dietitian. Physicians (and other advanced practice providers) want to be as full service as possible when it comes to integrated care, yet time and knowledge constraints demand another alternative and, frequently, that’s where social workers step in. An added advantage is that social worker services are reimbursable by insurers.

I make it all sound so simple, right? Of course, it’s not. Unfortunately, it can occur that patients receive two co-pay charges in the same visit: one for the medical provider, and another for the social worker. Hopefully, that can be resolved as the status of social workers is further elevated and insurers and employer groups package their benefits to include at least some level of fully funded social worker services.

There’s also the ubiquitous staffing shortage – I speak from experience as I seek to hire two social workers for our own organization. Further, we need to boost higher education enrollment in our state’s respected schools of social work.

In seeking to close this column, I did a quick google search to see if social workers actually had a day, week or month where they are feted. Surely, if there is a national donut and pancake day, social workers deserve at least a week. Lo and behold, I learned that not only is March National Social Work month, the theme for 2022 is The Time is Right for Social Work. My thoughts exactly!