Social Work Versus the Machine

The Future Viability of Social Workers in Healthcare

Social workers are the most underutilized, underpaid, under-appreciated, and misunderstood players in the American healthcare system. Despite that, their role is growing in importance.

Perhaps one challenge is that social work “outcomes” are very difficult to measure. Typical healthcare “outcomes” are attributed to medical care and follow a mostly linear process from diagnosis through treatment. Social work follows a more nuanced and multivariate process and “outcomes” vary widely depending on the situation.

“Medicine’s focus is narrow. Medical professionals concentrate on repair of health, not sustenance of the soul.” Atul Gawande, Being Mortal

As a non-social worker who employs social workers, I have come to appreciate the social worker value as akin to healthcare project managers or, even more colloquially, healthcare problem solvers. Social workers help with all aspects of healthcare aside from delivering medical care. For example, for a family with a chronically ill loved one with a complex set of conditions and circumstances, a social worker’s involvement is invaluable. Social workers help a family with everything from understanding the path ahead; locating resources and services at the local, state, and federal level; ensuring safety in the home and helping to determine the right level of daily assistance; and so much more.

Unfortunately, in many healthcare environments, social workers aren’t set up for success, which has impacted the perception of their role in the value chain. To succeed, social workers must get to know a family and understand the family’s unique culture, dynamics, and goals. It is impossible to get to know a family, however, in the 5 minute conversation that a social worker has during a hospital discharge.

In a world in which automation and technology are increasingly taking over previously human-powered jobs, social work is uniquely positioned to avoid automation, as long as social workers are given the right work. In the case of a standard hospital discharge, where a social worker prints out a list of rehab facilities for the family to consider, that output is easily automatable -- it is mostly predictable with finite options and variations. In contrast, when social workers are in the role of family-oriented “project manager,” they take in an infinite number of variables to inform high stakes decision-making, all while managing a family’s unpredictable personalities and extreme emotions. This is the work that is high-value, increasing in need, and impossible (for now) to automate fully. Additional support in this great McKinsey piece on automation.

Social workers, when in their “project management” sweet spot, deliver far more value than keeping an individual alive… they soothe, protect, and guide the family. In terms of how we measure social work “outcomes,” the social worker delivers an improved holistic healthcare experience, which should be measured by the satisfaction and relief of a family (why not use NPS?).

Since it is “Social Work Awareness” month, on behalf of the entire team at Wellthy, we wanted to provide a big kudos and thank you to social workers, especially those in our Wellthy family. Our Congress is fighting over repealing the Affordable Care Act, but regardless of the legislation, the case is only getting stronger for the significance of the social work role. Our country’s citizens are living longer, with more chronic conditions, and our healthcare system is increasing in cost and complexity… thank goodness we have Social Workers to guide us.

(Are you a social worker? If so, come join us! Learn more about Wellthy's Care Coordination opportunities at