Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Guardians of our own profession

photo by grassrootsmsw

“The good social worker doesn’t go on helping people out of a ditch. Pretty soon, he or she begins to find out what ought to be done to get rid of the ditch.”

-Mary Richmond-

“Getting rid of the ditch…” We, as professional social workers, are skilled at doing this on behalf of our clients and patients, but we are challenged when it comes to applying this to our own profession. Other professionals and most in the public still do not understand the unique roles of social work and the critical services we bring to our work.

When studying the history of social work, I am in awe of the first crusaders: Jane Addams, Mary Richmond, Lillian Wald, Florence Kelly, Julia Lathrop, Charlotte Towle, Frances Perkins, Whitney Young, Dame Cicely Saunders, Dorothy Height, Ida Maude Cannon…just to name a few. While their work was based in doing the real day to day work with their clients, they never lost sight of the larger picture. Their end goals being social reform, social equality, and social justice. Throughout all of their careers, they challenged the status quo of societal ills and pressed forth in their honoring of social work as a realized and proven “profession.”

I believe today’s generation of social workers will need to continue crusading for the value and worth of our profession. This is most especially true for those of us working in medical institutions. With the advent of managed care and changes in reimbursement tactics, hospitals are focused on cost effective/ bottom line economies, ultimately resulting in the decentralization of social work departments. We need to continue defining and articulating our roles and functions as social workers and consistently educating and addressing the misunderstanding, or misperception of our work.

I am especially motivated when I look back to 1905 when the first social worker was hired by a physician to work in a hospital. Dr. Richard Cabot, a senior physician at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), hired Ida Maude Cannon to jointly organize the nation’s first hospital based social work program. In 1914 Ms. Cannon was named Chief of the MGH Social Service Department. This was significant, as only two other Chiefs functioned in the hospital at that time (Chief of Medicine and Chief of Surgery). Both Ms. Cannon and Dr. Cabot worked together to apply systems that measured social work interventions and outcomes and then recorded the differences made. During her tenure (1905-1945), Ms. Cannon stated publicly, “The medical social service movement recognized that there should be within the hospital, someone definitely assigned to represent the patient’s point of view…And to work out with the physician, an adaptation of the medical treatment in the light of the patient’s social condition.” To implement this goal, interdisciplinary rounds, with social workers, began.

Social workers have a rich history that needs to be promoted and guarded. We need to be leaders within the larger systems, always upholding the values and mission of social work, and not giving up or in to the bureaucracy. We are often just seen as the “friendly visitor,” with the compassionate kind heart at the bed side. Most don’t realize the 2 years of master’s level study required of social workers. We need to stand up for our roles and be clear with those who kind heartedly blur their professional roles…believing they too can do “social work.”

My current boss always asks, “How did you make a difference this week?’ Every social worker should ask themselves that question, daily, and then record it. We tend to be so hurried in our work due to the sheer volume, but we must stop, and acknowledge the differences made. We are effecting and affecting human lives in subtle and often significant ways. There is a ripple effect in our work that shifts and changes broader issues and circumstances. We need to stand by that and enable greater understanding of that which we have affected through our skills as professional social workers. Let’s get rid of the ditch…carry the torch…and continue with our core mission.

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