Health Care Social Work in California

Written by Kim Borwick

health care social worker

Health care social workers in California are among the highest paid in the nation and have the greatest number of opportunities for employment in this rewarding career.

The Golden State is home to a diverse population with unique mental and physical health needs. Licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) provide support and services to people and families of all ages and from all walks of life.

In the wake of COVID-19 and the recent surge in opioid and fentanyl overdose deaths, the California Department of Health has committed to addressing the state’s top public health crises and is working with local communities, health jurisdictions, and community partners to educate and protect Californians.

According to The 2023 CHCF California Health Policy Survey, more than 54% of Californians experienced at least one negative interaction with a health care provider in the last few years, with Black (69%) and Latino/x (62%) Californians more likely than White and Asian (48% each) Californians to report having negative experiences.

What Do Health Care Social Workers Do?

Health care social workers — LCSWs in California — provide emotional support, counseling, and resource coordination to patients in hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, and rehabilitation centers. They assist patients and their families with medical decisions according to their wishes and circumstances.

Among the many responsibilities shouldered by medical social workers are advocacy and transition assistance. A typical day in the life of a health care social worker involves:

In addition to the hard skills needed to serve patients and their families, medical social workers demonstrate certain traits that allow them to provide high-quality care and support and improve patient outcomes.

These characteristics include:

  • Empathy
  • Active listening skills
  • Cultural competence
  • Communication skills
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Adaptability
  • Resilience
  • Advocacy skills
  • Ethical integrity
  • Collaborative mindset
  • Patience
  • Time management
  • Self-care
  • Critical thinking skills

Health Care Social Worker Salaries in California

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in May 2022, the mean annual wage for health care social workers in California was $88,380, the highest in the United States, where the top 90 percent of workers earned $87,830 per year.

California also had the second highest number of health care social workers and took each of the top ten highest paying metropolitan areas, with San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA paying an annual mean wage of $109,530.

The annual income of health care social workers in California can vary significantly based on various factors. Knowing these factors will help you make informed career decisions.

California’s Requirements for Becoming a Health Care Social Worker

Becoming a health care social worker in California typically requires a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree in social work from an accredited institution, a license in clinical social work, and relevant field experience.

Education

To start a career in health care social work, you typically need a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree. A BSW program usually takes four years to complete and provides a foundational understanding of social work principles and practices.

Many health care social work positions, especially those in clinical or specialized roles, require a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree. MSW programs typically take two years to complete and are offered online and in-person at highly reputable colleges and universities throughout California. You can find MSW programs that are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) on its directory of accredited programs.

Supervised Experience & Field Education

To become an LCSW in California, you will need to complete a certain number of supervised hours working in a social work setting. These hours are typically obtained through an internship or field placement as part of your MSW program.

Licensure

Once you have completed your degree program, you will need to obtain a social work license. The requirements vary depending on the type of license you are pursuing.

California’s Board of Behavioral Science (BBS) oversees social work licensure for the state. Visit the BBS website for information on Associate Clinical Social Worker (ASW) and
Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) licensure.

Examination

Once you have completed the required education and supervised experience, you will need to pass the ASWB clinical exam.

personal growth and continuing education

Continuing Education

After obtaining your license, you must fulfill continuing education requirements to maintain and renew your license. This includes taking courses and training to stay current with developments in the field.

Specialization and Certification

While not always required, obtaining additional certifications or specialized training can enhance your career prospects and expertise as a health care social worker. For example, you might pursue certification in areas such as gerontology, hospice and palliative care, or mental health care.

Requirements and regulations for California health care social workers can change over time, so be sure to check with the California Board of Behavioral Sciences for the latest information regarding licensing and career requirements.

Advancing Your Career as a Health Care Social Worker in California

Health care social workers are empathetic and ambitious people. Once you get your foot in the door, you will likely find that you want to do more for your patients and community. California offers a myriad of opportunities for devoted social work clinicians to broaden their professional horizons and expand their impact.

From private practice, leadership roles, and government agencies to hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, and mental health facilities, health care social workers can shape their careers to reflect their personal values by committing to a growth path that’s right for them.

Paths to advancing your career and maximizing your salary include:

California’s health care system relies on medical social workers to promote patient-centered care, improve patient outcomes, lower the cost of providing services, and nurturing the overall well-being of patients and their families.

With a projected 11 million Californians aged 60 or older and over one million 85 or older by the end of the decade, according to California Governor Gavin Newsom, the demand for health care services will continue to rise — and health care social workers will be a large part of that demand.

2022 US Bureau of Labor Statistics job market trends and salary figures for child, family, and school social workers, healthcare social workers, mental health and substance abuse social workers, and social workers (all other) are based on national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed December 2023.


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