Christine Annang, manager of social work at Franciscan Health in Olympia Fields, calls her staff Sherlock Holmes, after the famed literary sleuth known for his deductive reasoning prowess, because she says they “do a little investigating to get the right resources to the patients.”
“We’re looking at the basic needs of an individual when they come in,” Annang said. “Do they have a financial barrier? Is there food insecurity? We look at housing. We ask, does this patient have transportation? And we look at stress levels and social connections. Are they socially isolated? We look at depression as it relates to all those potential barriers.”
When those patient barriers are found, social workers connect individuals with community resources. They fill out Medicaid paperwork with patients, then follow up after discharge to help them collect supporting documents like birth certificates and pay stubs. They refer patients to local food pantries and soup kitchens. They help them connect with behavioral health organizations and transportation services through their insurance providers. They sit with patients and listen.
“There’s compassionate care that goes into social work — a warm touch. And that touch can even be physical,” Annang said, “just a hand-grabbing, a hand-holding or a hug. [Our patients] know they have someone who will listen, and they know that the person they’re talking to has an invested interest in making sure they have quality of life. That’s what social workers deliver in hospital settings.”
Annang manages a staff of 10 social workers who serve the 206-bed hospital. Although every patient undergoes a social work screening, she estimates 75-80% of patients who enter Franciscan Olympia Field are determined to need further assistance from her staff. That need level grew over the past two years of the global pandemic.
“What we know and what we’ve seen is that we will be feeling the ramifications of COVID-19 for years to come. It has impacted every aspect of everyone’s lives. That stress level is showing up. That depression is showing up. The amount of homelessness is showing up. The lack of social support and isolation is showing up,” Annang said.
“Even just as far as medically, we are seeing an exacerbation of COPD, asthma, diabetes, hypertension and congestive heart failure. As we’re opening up in Illinois, we’re starting to see patients come in and they’re sicker,” she said. “They’re coping with loss of income, of family members and stability. We’re seeing all of that and we know we’ll be seeing that for years to come.”
Social work’s history with public health stretches back over a century. In 1918, during another pandemic, professional social workers established the American Association of Hospital Social Workers, according to a report published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine. That same report highlights the role of New Deal architect Harry L. Hopkins in promoting the necessity of placing social workers in medical settings.
“The fields of social work and public health are inseparable, and no artificial boundaries can separate them. Social work is interwoven in the whole fabric of the public health movement and has directly influenced it at every point,” Hopkins said in 1926 when addressing the National Conference of Social Work.
Today, there are over 700,000 social workers in the U.S., according to 2020 Labor Bureau statistics. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) designates March as Social Work Month, and this year’s theme is “The Time Is Right for Social Work.”
Annang tried to shine light on her staff and found ways to celebrate and give them recognition in the hospital community, from signs and banners to pizza and a luncheon. After all, these are tough times for all, and social workers face personal and professional struggles like all others.
“We’re promoting self-care [among social work staff]. Before you can take care of anybody else, you have to be able to take care of yourself, and that is mind, body and spirit,” Annang said.
“We’re making sure that we’re celebrating each other, all the little things sometimes we overlook. Our number one job is advocacy. We advocate for our patients, our families and ourselves.”
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