OPINION: Social workers are also heroes

A few years ago, I wrote an article entitled “Nurses are my heroes.” I would like to echo this sentiment about social workers. It is timely to do so, as March is the annual awareness month for social workers, and March 19 is World Social Work Day. It is fitting to commemorate and express our gratitude for all social workers.

What do social workers do? In essence, they help people in times of need, especially the more vulnerable. They are employed in a variety of ways. Most hospitals employ social workers to help patients and families. Many schools employ social workers. Various civic and governmental organizations, such as child and adult welfare programs, substance use treatment centers, homeless shelters, the military, criminal court systems, and other agencies and businesses utilize social workers.

Most social workers today have a master’s degree in social work (MSW) and are licensed by the state. They are highly educated and motivated to help in time of need. Social workers need good communication skills, empathy and understanding for those who are less fortunate and are burdened with complex problems, be an advocate for the patient, and work as part of a team. Alaska is composed of a very ethnically diverse population, and social workers need to seek an understanding of the cultural uniqueness of each patient. Ultimately, a good social worker is a compassionate problem solver.

As a physician, I have had the splendid opportunity to work with many social workers over the years. In addition, I have a daughter who works as a social worker at a major children’s hospital in the Lower 48. I rely on social workers to be part of our health care team. They are invaluable and I cannot thank them enough.

Hospitals would virtually cease to exist without social workers. They are called upon to help in times of violence or trauma, with patients who might be homeless, poverty-stricken, suffer from addiction disorders, diagnosed with cancer or other life-threatening illnesses — or mothers who deliver babies who are preterm or born with special challenges such as Down Syndrome. Social workers help patients who are refugees or recent immigrants, have mental health challenges, experience end-of-life issues, and are incarcerated or are somehow involved in a criminal court system. Health care is supremely expensive and can create financial hardship. Social workers are often involved in helping patients and their families with the financial burden. In summary, if there is a crisis or urgent and severe issue in a hospital, you can be certain that a social worker will be called upon to help.

The stress and toll upon our social workers is tremendous. They must deal with the tragedies and supreme hardships that patients and members of our communities must face. They do so each day with kindness. When you have the opportunity, please thank a social worker for the service they provide. We are so fortunate to have them in our midst.

Dr. Dana P. Damron is a physician at Alaska Native Medical Center and Providence Alaska Medical Center.

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