June Simmons, Sandy Atkins, Janice Lynch Schuster, and Melissa Jones
Transitions in care occur when a patient moves from an institutional setting, such as a hospital or nursing home, to home or community, often with the hope or expectation of improving health status. At the very least, patients, clinicians, and caregivers aim to achieve stability and avoid complications that would precipitate a return to the emergency department (ED) or hospital. For some groups of vulnerable people, especially the very old and frail, such transitions often require specific, targeted coaching and supports that enable them to make the change successfully. Too often, as research indicates, these transitions are poorly executed and trigger a cycle of hospital readmissions and worsening health, even death. In recognizing these perils, organizations have begun to see that by improving the care transition process, they can improve health outcomes and reduce costs while ensuring safety, consistency, and continuity. While some of this improvement relies on medical care, coaching, social services and supports are often also essential. Lack of timely medical follow-up, transportation, inadequate nutrition, medication issues, low health literacy, and poverty present barriers to optimal health outcomes. By addressing social and environmental determinants of health and chronic disease self-management, social workers who make home visits or other proven timely interventions to assess and coach patients and their caregivers are demonstrating real results. This article describes care transitions interventions, research into barriers and opportunities, and specific programs aimed at improvement.
Lois F. Cowles
Social work in health care emerged with immigration and urbanization associated with industrialization, and the resultant shift from physician visits to the patient's home and workplace to hospital-centered care. This change is alleged to have resulted in a loss of the doctor's perspective of the psychosocial influences on physical health. Originally, some nurses were assigned the function of addressing this loss. But eventually, the function became recognized as that of a social worker. From its beginnings in the general hospital setting in the late 1800s, social work in health care, that is, medical social work, has expanded into multiple settings of health care, and the role of the social worker from being a nurse to requiring a Master's Degree in Social Work (MSW) from a university. However, the broad function of social work in health care remains much the same, that is, “to remove the obstacles in the patient's surroundings or in his mental attitude that interfere with successful treatment, thus freeing him to aid in his own recovery” (Cannon, 1923. p 15). Health care social workers are trained to work across the range of “methods,” that is, work with individuals, small groups, and communities (social work “methods” are called “casework”, “group work” and “community organization”). They work to assist the patient, using a broad range of interventions, including, when indicated, speaking on behalf of the client (advocacy), helping clients to assert themselves, to modify undesirable behaviors, to link with needed resources, to face their challenges, to cope with crises, to develop improved understanding of their health-related thought processes and habits, to build needed self confidence to do what is required to help themselves deal with their health problem, to gain insight and support from others who are in a similar situation, to gain strength from humor, or from a supportive environment, and through spiritual experience, and from practicing tasks that are needed to deal with their health-related problems or from joining forces with others in the community to modify it in the interest of improved health status for all, or to gradually restore a sense of stability and normalcy after a traumatic experience. Most important of all, perhaps, is the “helping relationship” between client and social worker, which needs to be one of total understanding and acceptance of the client as a person. A sizable portion of the U.S. population lacks financial access to health care, where health care is regarded as a privilege rather than a right, as it is seen in all other industrial nations (except South Africa). Current trends in the U.S. health care system reflect efforts to control rising health care costs without dealing with the “real problems,” which are: (1) the lack of a single-payer health care system and: (2) the lack of focus on “public health.”