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College of Social Work

  • Lexington Medical Center Hospital Social Workers

Alumna Oversees the Essential Tasks of Hospital Social Workers

Aug. 4, 2020
Chris Woodley •

A July 27 article in Prevention magazine described hospital social workers as “one of the unsung heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic.” They serve as the middle person between patients and their families while providing support and updates as part of interdisciplinary teams. Hospital social workers behind-the-scenes efforts are an essential part of the treatment and recovery process for each patient.  

Alumna Katherine Watts, MSW ’01, the Director of Medical Social Services at Lexington Medical Center in West Columbia, South Carolina, supervises 40 hospital social workers. Since mid-March, COVID-19 has forced her staff to adjust to new methods of interacting with patients and families. 

“We had a staff meeting on March 16 to introduce the idea of what we thought was happening,” Watts says. “Social workers were not recommended to go into some rooms in order to conserve Personal Protective Equipment but still could provide support over the phone. We did not really understand the virus enough at that point, but things have certainly changed since then.”

One of the challenges is that since COVID-19 has prevented Watts staff from entering hospital rooms, they may believe they are no longer contributing to their patients’ plan of care. But Watts ensures her staff that they are still doing the hard work of adjusting to a different process.

“One person on my staff who has worked in the COVID-19 unit since the beginning told a patient, 'Tell me what I can answer for you because I know the nursing staff is busy, and I'll do my best to support you,’” Watts says. “She's answering questions we may not typically answer, but while the nurses and physicians are busy, we can take a step back to help.”

Visitors are not permitted in COVID-19 units, and some patients need the support of their families when making care plan decisions. As a result, keeping families updated on the care of their loved one can be challenging. Since doctors and nurses are usually unable to meet families in-person, the social work staff completes a general assessment with the patients and families that provides the interaction needed to address concerns and answer questions.

“Even though my staff is not clinical, they can examine a chart, provide feedback, and communicate to the clinical staff that the patient’s family has questions,” Watts says. “We give families that personal connection to say that we have not forgotten about their loved ones and promise that we are taking care of them. We've always had a reputation of being available to families anytime when they call or need information.”

Watts believes that social workers are some of the most adaptable professionals because they have learned to adjust in order to meet the needs of the patients. She has been most impressed with her staff’s creativity and ability to acclimate daily. Watts inpatient staff was initially told to work remotely from the social work office because of PPE conservation efforts. They performed their duties with all patients and families by phone and shifted their mindset to work in a call center-like atmosphere. Once community spread of the coronavirus increased, Watts was told that her that social workers needed to return to their units due to the need to social distance.

“It only took them two or three days to adjust to the new normal on not being on units,” Watts says. “Seeing our social workers learning how to adapt has been one of the glaring positives from COVID-19 because my staff members have proven themselves.” 

While the number of coronavirus diagnoses continue to rise in South Carolina, it has also led to an increase in mental health cases. Watts’ staff includes emergency department social workers who work 12-hour shifts as mental health consultants to physicians.

“Even though hospital volume decreased for a period of time, the volume of mental health cases has not waivered,” Watts says. “They (ER social workers) understand that their work sometimes has nothing to do with the pandemic. People in a mental health crisis need continued support, and we never stop seeing those patients face-to-face for providing the best level of support.”

Watts also ensures her staff’s hard work does not go unnoticed. She encourages and recognizes her employees, while creating a positive environment to help boost morale during difficult times. This has included ordering shirts for her staff to wear on Fridays and socially distanced gatherings. Three of Watts’ social workers had babies during the pandemic, and her staff made signs and used FaceTime to interact with colleagues and meet their newborns.     

“I think there is a little lack of understanding for what we do daily. But at the end of the day it comes down to an inner strength of knowing that we are providing the best support for Lexington Medical Center patients and families with the resources we have available,” Watts says. “In the first weeks of the pandemic, everyone was running on adrenaline because they wanted to contribute. But it became exhausting after about a month, so we had to dig deep to remember our purpose. The Lexington Medical Center social workers have great internal morale, so it's not too hard to keep it up, but you have to continue to find ways to be purposeful.”

No one knows when the COVID-19 pandemic will subside or end. But Watts believes her staff will have a better perspective and appreciation for their job. She also believes her staff may not have understood the difficulty of communicating with patients and families by phone, and this experience has improved their ability to better communicate.

“We can sometimes be complacent with our assessment skills saying, ‘I already know this patient came from a nursing home, so I probably don't need to go in and see them.' Now that my staff has been unable to see their patients, they understand the importance of face-to-face interaction,” Watts says. “Right now, we stand by the door with our mask or face shield and try to eliminate any risk of exposure. It goes against so much of what we are as social workers to provide that personal touch and say, ‘It's all right; I'm here. What can I do?' They will appreciate that interaction so much more beyond the pandemic.”

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