Reflecting on the ‘work’ of health social work

By Jane T

Social work has a long and respected history within health care settings (Giles, 2013). Within New Zealand, health social work has a sixty year history, marked by a number of key changes (Beddoe & Deeney, 2012). Social work in health care, which takes place in hospital and other health settings, aims to facilitate good health and support patients and their families to resolve the social and psychological issues they face related to illness (Dziegiellewski, 2013).

Health social workers make a vital contribution when it comes to addressing the social factors concerning patients that are ill and out of the scope of the medical professionals. In the month that I have spent as a social work student within a New Zealand hospital it has been pleasing to observe medical staff referring patients with social or emotional difficulties onto social work. I have been impressed watching social workers pick up these referrals and work with different patients to arrange accommodation, reconnect with family, talk through grief and loss, make safety plans and access community and home supports to enable safe discharge.

While it is encouraging to see the difference that social work can make in terms of alleviating some of the social and emotional pressures of patients, often the actual time spent with patients is very brief. The social worker completes an assessment, supports are arranged (if requirements are met) and the patient is discharged from inpatient social work. Many of the social workers that I have talked to have said that these brief interactions are difficult and when they went into social work, thought that they would have more time to complete assessments and follow up on their interventions. Many of the social workers have voiced frustration at the amount of time they spend doing administration duties (entering notes, statistics and reports) which cuts into their time with patients and reduces their ability to achieve outcomes in line with the human rights and social justice principles of their profession.

Like our Australian counterparts, public health services in New Zealand which were once publicly or funded through charity, now sit within a complex range of funding and accountability processes (Giles, 2015). Currently the health system is largely managed by administrators educated in business management and economic principles (Giles, 2015). Social work in New Zealand is still finding its place within Allied Health, the group of qualified health professionals (other than doctors and nurses) who work directly with patients. Managerialism, and the increasing pressure on social workers to demonstrate outcomes, seems to override a more therapeutic style of social work in the health setting. Perriman (2015) stated that “the socioeconomic context of economic rationalism and managerialism is not always compatible with social work values” (Perriman, 2015, p. i). In my observation, this rings true, and is something that health social workers seem to be continually navigating in their work.


Allied Health (2017). Allied Health. Retrieved June 01, 2017, from

Beddoe, L. & Deeney, C. (2012). Discovering health social work in New Zealand in its published work: Implications for the profession. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 21 (1), 41-55. Read here

Dziegiellewski, S. F. (2013). The changing face of health care social work: Opportunities and challenges for professional practice 3rd ed. NY, USA: Springer publishing company, LLC.

Giles, R. (2013). Contemporary issues in health social work. In L. Harms & M. Connelly (Eds). Social work: Contexts and practice (3rd ed., pp 179-193). Australia: Oxford University Press.

International Federation of Social Workers (2016). Global definitions of social work. Retrieved June 02, 2017, from

Perriam, C. (2015). Social work is what social workers do: A study of hospital social workers’ understanding of their work and their professional identity. Unpublished master’s thesis. Edith Cowan University: Perth, Australia.

Waikato DHB (2017). Social work. Retrieved June 01, 2017, from




About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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