Social Workers: Star Players on the Patient-Care Team

March is National Social Work Month, and this year’s theme is “Social Workers Pave the Way for Change.” Today, there are nearly 50 social workers on the medical campus. Some have worked here for decades and played very personal roles in the significant changes that have occurred in patient care and in the steady improvements in patient outcomes.

Rosa Caiseda, M.S.W., is one example. She has worked at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center since it opened in 1992. Today, as Director of Social Services at Sylvester’s Courtelis Center for Psychosocial Oncology, she and a staff of eight social workers — five on the medical campus and three in oncology departments at satellite facilities — are part of a team of mental health professionals who help patients and their families cope with cancer.

“So much has changed since I first came here,” she said. “We get amazing outcomes now, and we have been privileged to be part of that success. We try to meet with patients as early as possible in the diagnosis stage so we can begin to assess their individual needs and begin offering support.”

“Our medical social workers are a vital part of UHealth’s team-based approach to patient care,” said Pascal J. Goldschmidt, M.D., Senior Vice President for Medical Affairs and Dean of the Miller School of Medicine and CEO of UHealth. “They often deal with difficult cases on a long-term basis. Their compassion for our patients and their families inspires them to do everything they can to help them.”

The social workers on the medical campus serve in a variety of settings, frequently involving progressive diseases, but they have a shared holistic approach to patient care, said Veronica Galego, M.S.W., Newborn Screening Coordinator at the UM Cystic Fibrosis Center.

“PIE, or Person In Environment, is a guiding principle in social work practice,” she said. “So is what is called the biopsychosocial assessment. We need to understand a patient’s total situation in order to properly assess their needs and help them resolve their issues.”

This assessment can involve family and work dynamics, financial factors such as the ability to afford prescribed medications, availability of transportation to get to appointments, stairs to climb at home — almost anything that might have an impact on the patient’s condition.

A shared philosophy is essential, especially when you are dealing with high volumes of patients, said Estin Kelly, M.B.A., M.S., Case Management and Social Services Director at University of Miami Hospital. He oversees 15 medical social workers, approximately one-third of the social workers on the medical campus, who see between 16,000 and 20,000 patients each year.

“We strive to evaluate 100 percent of our patients who are admitted to this hospital,” he said. “We try to understand their needs and help them as much as possible. We listen to them, then show them how to access resources in the community in which they live.”

“The mission of social work is to help people find their own solutions and help themselves out of the adversity they are experiencing,” said Julieta Hernandez, Ph.D., Clinical Supervisor and Social Work Training Program Lead/Liaison at the Mailman Center for Child Development. “This is important in our relationship with medical providers. Some say we are the glue that holds everything together because we focus on the patient in the context of their environment. Our practices are enhanced by these collaborations and, of course, it benefits the patients.“

George Dumenigo, M.S.W., Clinical Social Worker and Community Outreach Coordinator in the Department of Neurology, works with patients who have Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease and other types of movement disorders. He says making patients informed has a lot to do with helping them cope with their health challenges.

“Many of our patients lack education regarding their diseases,” he said. “I run three support groups for patients and caregivers, we hold several patient symposia each year, and also send out a monthly newsletter with a calendar of events to get them involved in different activities that will improve their quality of life. We even launched a cycling program for Parkinson’s patients right here at the UHealth Fitness and Wellness Center in January.”

Rochelle Baer, M.S.W., who works with Hernandez at the Mailman Center, became Associate Director in the Training Division four years ago. She has found that the Center’s focus on children with disabilities and neurological special needs is an especially good professional fit because she herself became disabled at age 3.

“I’ve always been on the outskirts of disabilities, and now I’m in the middle of it,” she said. “I teach medical students and graduate students about disabilities, and I run a leadership program for professionals interested in working with children with disabilities and their families. I also work with patients. It’s very rewarding when you can see that you are having an impact.”

Many of the medical campus social workers speak very emotionally of their profession.

“Social work is my passion,” said Galego. “I feel a great deal of satisfaction when I’m speaking to a patient or a family member and they tell me what a big difference I have made. My business is not a medical record number; my business is people, and I enjoy helping them improve their quality of life.”

“I have smiled for 32 years,” said Ana Garcia, Ph.D., assistant professor of clinical pediatrics and Social Work Director for the HIV program at the Batchelor Children’s Research Institute. “I have known these children since they were born. I have held them in my arms. Some of them call me Mom. We have lived through thick and thin with them and their families. Even though they transition out at age 24, my oldest, who is 34, still comes by. They include us in their lives. I have been invited to weddings and funerals — even deliveries.

“Many social workers, because of the variance in our roles, don’t get to enjoy the life that I have. I lucked out.”

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