As subsequent waves of COVID-19 have hit, news headlines have repeatedly called attention to rising case counts, hospital bed and staff shortages, and pleas from overworked medical staff to observe public health measures. But not everyone on the front lines has been as well noticed.
Social workers in health care continue to work with COVID-19 positive patients every day and endure heartbreaking tasks such as facilitating video calls for families saying goodbye to their loved ones. They are essential to positive health outcomes for individuals and for the system as a whole. This role has been vital during the pandemic and will be needed more than ever as we move toward recovery.
Social workers are integral to maintaining the strained health-care system in Ontario through their contributions to hospital discharge planning, improving patient flow and reducing hospital length of stay (to the tune of $1.4 million in savings in one health-care network alone). They add value to inter-professional teams through their ability to attend to the psychosocial factors of illness such as poverty, under-housing, mental health and addictions, behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia, caregiver burnout and more.
During the pandemic, social workers have continued to successfully combat massive pressures that the health-care system is facing, including hospital overcrowding, staffing shortages, redeployments and extreme pandemic measures such as critical care triage and transfers of patients between hospitals.
In addition, social workers have provided invaluable and often immeasurable personal and emotional support to patients and families through difficult and heartbreaking times. They act as lifelines to families and patients navigating grief and visitation bans, as tireless advocates for the needs of their patients.
Social work’s role does not stop at the doors of a hospital. Throughout our communities, social workers are addressing non-urgent issues and supporting individuals with innovative and comprehensive care plans. Every day, they help people remain in their homes and intervene to prevent concerns from becoming crises. In addition, social workers are advocates for social justice within health care and other systems, working toward addressing and eliminating structural inequalities that have existed since long before the pandemic.
Social workers will continue to be called upon to address the aftermath when the pandemic finally comes to an end. Experts are warning of an echo pandemic of increased mental health needs and issues surrounding the social determinants of health that may last for years. As the largest providers of psychotherapy in the province, social workers will be called upon to support and help people establish and adjust to their new normal in health care, schools, corrections, social services and other settings.
Yet access to social workers is, unfortunately, not as easy as it should be. The growing demand for services in Ontario already is exacerbated by long waitlists that, in some regions, can be years long for specialized programs. Although we have seen an increase in public discourse on the mental health effects of the pandemic, additional supports are needed to address the growing demand for services across the province.
The government of Ontario has committed to supporting those most impacted by the pandemic. As social work will be at the forefront of delivering these services, additional hires are going to be needed. Further, to ensure that people can recover from the impacts of the pandemic, Ontario needs to strategically deploy social workers to key settings, including within leadership and policy-making positions.
Balancing system and patient needs, social workers are integral to all parts of the health-care system. It is a profession that provides an extensive, adaptable and unique skill set within the health-care system. The pandemic has demonstrated that social workers are essential and must be deemed as such.
Rachelle Ashcroft, Lori Byerley, Lori Dunne, Amber Reid, Chloe Walls, Jerilyn Hurwitz, Geneviève Côté, Candace Hind, Sinthu Srikanthan and Kaelen Boyd contributed to this article.