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What skills do social workers need to ensure the best patient outcomes?


Social workers are highly trained professionals who learn and develop a range of skills in order to practice effectively. The particular proficiencies and knowledge they have will depend on the section of the population they are working with. Professionals who support patients in hospital are mainly engaged with finding the right resources, both for individuals and their families. However, their scope of practice includes many other responsibilities. These include assisting with the discharge of vulnerable patients, coordinating their care at home, and managing any unexpected issues.

Developing a positive attitude at university 

At an intersection between health and social care, in a medical setting, social workers face many unique challenges. From ensuring that clients are cared for optimally, to finding them a hospital bed and ensuring that they are listened to, these specialist clinicians have to advocate for patients in a range of difficult situations. To overcome these obstacles, hospital social workers draw on their training to remain positive and keep focused on the task at hand. On programs such as the online Bachelor of Social Work at Spring Arbor University, students take part in an internship and learn from experienced professionals. This means that they are ready for the rigors of professional practice when they graduate.

Below, we take a closer look at some of the skills that students will develop on a degree course and throughout their working life, and why they are essential in patient care.

Empathy for patients is crucial 

The majority of a social worker’s day is spent interacting with clients and listening while they speak about their experiences, needs and preferences. Practitioners will focus on the challenges that a person is going through and how any obstacles to the patient’s recovery can be removed. Part of this work involves the ability to empathize, as this ensures that they can make useful connections with the people they serve and show compassion. Moreover, they can better understand a person’s problems and see their perspective, and then use this information to offer helpful interventions.

How is empathy developed? 

In order to refine their empathy skills, social workers will first concentrate on active listening. This involves more than hearing the other person talk and responding appropriately. It’s about listening without making any interruptions or trying to offer advice until the speaker has finished, as this makes it easier to truly understand what a person is saying. Furthermore, learning to be non-judgmental, to accept the differing perspectives of patients, and not to make assumptions are all good ways to develop empathy.

Excellent interpersonal skills

Communication is at the heart of many social work practices. When dealing with clients, practitioners need to express themselves clearly and allow the client to do the same. Once they understand the client’s emotions, experiences and worries, they should have the ability to explain clearly what resources they can offer. Moreover, this process has to be successful with a very diverse set of patients every day. So, interpersonal skills are crucial to get the job done effectively.

How are interpersonal skills developed? 

There are several techniques that social workers can use to improve the way that they communicate with clients. Primarily, building trust, establishing an honest dialogue and being transparent are the best ways to start. This will happen over time as the relationship progresses, but showing a lack of bias certainly makes it easier for clients to trust a professional. Furthermore, when the social worker solves a practical problem for a client, the client will feel that the support is reliable and that they can rely on the practitioner moving forward. This leads to a great level of trust and openness, which in turn paves the way for better outcomes.

Accurate writing and recordkeeping 

Keeping records of conversations with clients, as well as the interventions they offer and the results of these, are all part of a social worker’s practice. Along with active listening, professionals should be ready to write notes that reflect what has been discussed and agreed upon. With this documentation in hand, they can read back to check all the important details and may even pick up on nuances they have missed during the conversation. This will inform and guide their choice of treatment or assistance. Also, in the longer term, it allows a social worker to monitor the success of their interventions.

How are writing skills developed by social workers?

Writing and note-taking can be improved considerably when social workers take the time to check over what they have written shortly after a conversation has taken place. By proofreading thoroughly, they can ensure that there are no gaps in their knowledge and they are confident that the notes represent a true picture of the patient’s needs. Reading the document aloud can also be useful when assessing its effectiveness, especially if the notes will be shared with other professionals. Finally, social workers can ask their colleagues for feedback on their note-taking and use any constructive advice to develop their writing moving forward.

Growing as a professional with greater self-awareness

Social workers need to be self-aware to understand how their actions or inactions may have an impact on the clients they are trying to help. It allows them to see their own biases and preconceptions in a more objective, clinical way and then use this insight to improve their work. With better self-awareness, practitioners can be more open to receiving feedback from colleagues and advice from other professionals in their team. In time, this enriches their practices and nurtures their professional growth.

How can social workers develop their self-awareness?

The most effective way for a professional to become more self-aware is through an exploration of their assumptions and pre-existing attitudes. Frequently, this can happen through self-reflective practices such as journaling, where social workers can answer set questions on their worldview and gain a deeper understanding of their limitations. It can also come about through returning to core guides, such as the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics and the specific policies set out for their workplace. This makes it easier to treat patients with dignity, whether they conform to a certain set of expectations or not.

Collaborating well with other professionals 

Social workers are used to practicing independently when they meet patients and establish a plan of treatment. They must also have the ability to collaborate with a range of other practitioners to get the best results for the patients in their care. From physicians to phycologists, travel nurses and more, many people can form part of the team around a patient. This often happens when the social worker is planning a discharge, or when the client needs services they cannot provide, such as a psychiatric intervention. Working effectively with others allows professionals to access more resources and better serve their clients.

How can social workers develop their collaborative skills? 

To work well in a team, social workers should prepare in advance for any upcoming collaboration or meeting. This allows them to present any information they have clearly and be ready to answer questions fully. They can look into the background of other members to understand more about what they might offer and be ready to affirm the strengths of each individual. Collaboration can be a challenge, but by learning to work better together with others, social workers can solve issues they might not be able to manage alone.

Establishing boundaries with patients 

Although compassion and empathy are key to the effectiveness of social work, practitioners must also be confident in setting boundaries with the people they serve. These boundaries touch on a range of professional and ethical limits. They are in place to safeguard the professional, but also the client when it comes to confidentiality, and the protection of each individual’s emotional health. Boundaries also facilitate trust because they create a secure space, allow for honest exchanges, and keep the focus on the needs of the client.

What techniques do social workers use to set boundaries? 

To maintain a healthy level of detachment from their caseload, social workers place clients at the center of the decision-making process. A patient’s needs come first when choices are being made about their health and their future. Practitioners are careful not to share any details of their personal life, their circumstances or their past, as this helps to maintain professionalism. Moreover, they cannot work with a client who is known to them in any other capacity – for example, as a neighbor, a family member or someone who works for them. Finally, social workers make sure that boundaries remain in place by taking care of themselves, as well as their clients. This ensures that they are still fit to practice in a role that can often be challenging, and helps them to manage their emotions.


Practitioners are engaged in a constant process of professional development to improve their social work skills. Along with asking for feedback and evaluating their performance through self-reflection, they will also consider which abilities they would like to improve and take further certification to do so.

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