A diagnosis, a disease, and a treatment process can bear a heavy weight on a person and their family or caretakers, especially when outside factors are also contributing additional stress. Managing these stressors and maintaining a healthy mind and body is an important part of maintaining good health and overall quality of life. In order to provide whole-person care here at UT Health Austin, social workers play a crucial role in helping patients manage their diagnosis as well as any personal, social, or emotional difficulties they may also be experiencing to ensure they are receiving the highest quality of care and support possible.
Becky Morales, collaborative care social worker at UT Health Austin, says, “It is not uncommon in healthcare settings to have social workers involved in patient care; however, oftentimes social workers can be siloed from the remainder of the care team. Here at UT Health Austin, we sit in the same spaces with all of our care team members. We sit alongside them in case conferences or case consultations and together determine what plan of care would be most appropriate for every individual patient.”
The care team brings together a variety of disciplines, including dietitians, social workers, surgeons, associate providers, physical therapists chiropractors, and a whole host of others to brainstorm collectively about how to best provide care for each patient as a whole. Becky Morales explains that having social workers as a part of the team enables them to focus and integrate an emphasis around the emotional health and well-being of their patients.
“We often know that there is a lot of stress that goes alongside managing any kind of medical condition, but also just managing day-to-day life, whether that is challenges in the work setting, with child-rearing, or with a relationship, all of those things can definitely impact someone’s ability to care for themselves. So integrating our social workers allows us to be able to provide the best possible support to our patients to help them achieve better health outcomes and a more satisfied quality of life,” says Morales.
Patients, being at the center of their own care, can decide whether service from a trained medical social worker may be helpful to them or not, just as they would decide if input from a dietitian or physical therapist would be helpful in their care as well. Social workers can provide a wealth of services, including help with obtaining housing assistance, financial assistance, legal assistance, or any other type of advocacy possibly with their health insurance, such as trying to secure medications at reduced costs. Social workers are also able to assist with getting patients connected with counseling services that can be provided in the UT Health Austin clinic or referred out to local resources in the community. The overall goal is to prevent and reduce negative emotional and psychosocial consequences of a patient’s health condition and to encourage and connect patients with available resources to aid them throughout their treatment process.
As a way to standardize mental health care as a part of a patients whole treatment process, new UT Health Austin patients are asked to complete a number of screening tools that are related to the medical condition that is bringing them in to receive care as well as questionnaires that give providers a better understanding of additional stressors that may be going on in their lives. The social workers then have the opportunity to review those tools to determine if a patient may benefit from an initial conversation with a social worker to connect them with resources that may help ease their stress throughout their care process.
Morales says, “I definitely think having social workers as a part of our care team really sheds light on the importance and the value of mental health. We normalize it here by asking questions around people’s depression symptoms or anxiety symptoms to really try to understand what other things might be going on in a patient’s world that we can best support them with. Not only do we ask those questions, we also have the opportunity to be of service and offer a connection or other supportive services, which I think does make our model distinct.”
Morales and all of the UT Health Austin social workers are dedicated to breaking down the stigma around mental health and are passionate about these critical services, which help support the overall health and well-being of patients in our community. “We are just lucky to have the opportunity to really be able to support our patients from a holistic standpoint,” says Morales.