Saint Leo University alumna Michelle Chappell always knew she wanted to be a social worker and dreamed of earning her master's degree. An internship at a hospital during her online master's in social work program inspired her to start an exciting and challenging new career path as a medical social worker."My internship helped spark my interest and made me think medical social work was something I wanted to do," Michelle says.

The life of a medical social worker

Prior to her internship, Michelle, who had earned a bachelor's degree in social work, had worked for five years with children in a school-based setting. Having completed her MSW program at Saint Leo, she is now employed as a medical social worker for a hospital in Portsmouth, Va.

A typical day for Michelle includes interviewing patients, speaking to family members, documenting her work, and researching options for patients.

She also uses an assessment tool to help patients plan for being discharged from the hospital and prepare them with resources for personal care or entering a long-term care or nursing facility. She works with doctors, nurses, and other allied health professionals, as well as patients and their families.

"It feels good when I know the patients have had a safe discharge, or I've been able to assist the families and patients," she says.

Medical social work career options

According to a 2011 National Association of Social Workers report, medical social workers help patients and families understand their illness or injuries, cope with emotions of a diagnosis, and provide counseling on medical decisions to be made.

The median annual salary ranges from about $52,000 to $64,900, depending on experience and the specific health care setting.

Michelle says a common misconception about medical social work is that it doesn't offer the same amount of clinical work as other social work areas. She says medical social workers often help patients going through crisis situations.

"It is clinical because you're assisting family members and patients, and each patient and his or her situation is unique."

In an acute care setting such as a hospital, medical social workers such as Michelle are part of an interdisciplinary team of health professionals – doctors, nurses, and physical, occupational and speech therapists.

Michelle, for example, works with patients who may have dementia and others with undiagnosed or undocumented disorders. She will be helping to facilitate the adoption process in the maternity unit and will soon be gaining experience assisting patients and families in the emergency room.

The most challenging part of her new job, she says, has been adjusting to a caseload with tight deadlines while managing the many details that occur when planning a patient's discharge.

Some patients, for example, may not be able to be discharged to go home without arrangements to ensure certain medical equipment, such as oxygen, is available to them, says Michelle. Others may be required to complete any number of medical procedures before being released to a skilled nursing facility.

"The objective is to make sure that all patients are discharged to a safe environment where their health needs will met," says Michelle. "But each patient's situation is unique and the unexpected always comes up. You can't let details and procedures overshadow the patient. You have to treat patients with dignity, respect, and compassion by focusing on them first."

Highly trained social workers in high demand

After graduating from Saint Leo University's Advanced Standing Master of Social Work (MSW) program in 2013, Michelle says she had lots of job options and several offers in a variety of work settings.

In fact, even after she accepted her current job, another employer told her to keep in touch. "They were really impressed with my resume and told me if things didn't work out, they were still interested in me," she says.

Michelle attributes earning her master's degree at Saint Leo with her success—and her numerous offers.

"I received many job offers not only because of my experience, but mostly because of my MSW degree from Saint Leo," she says.

Rigorous program sets students up for success

Michelle says Saint Leo's online MSW program provided a solid foundation for clinical practice.

"I had worked in clinical positions for almost 10 years, but in this program I gained not only knowledge and understanding about clinical work, but I also learned how to work with different populations, such as military populations," she says.

As a wife and mother of a teenage son and college-age daughter, Michelle also says the online and face-to-face video format of the MSW program at Saint Leo fit perfectly into her busy family and work schedule. The program was rigorous, and took a lot of discipline and hard work, but was worth the effort.

"My daughter said I inspired her to go back to school to get her master's. The fact that I have mine is pushing her even more towards that goal," Michelle says.

Michelle is now focusing on her new job and her next goal: becoming a licensed social worker. Doing so will require her to obtain 3,000 hours of supervised practice and take a state board test, but she's confident she'll be successful.

Are you interested in the field of medical social work?

National Social Work Month

The National Association of Social Workers has designated March as National Social Work Month. For more information about National Social Work Month 2014 or the social work profession, visit

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Pursuing an Online Masters in Social Work So He Can Make a Difference

Online Social Work Degree Leads to a "Profession of Hope"

Images Courtesy Michelle Chappell