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Breaking Barriers: Social Workers' Critical Role in Advancing Patient Care

social worker with patient in masks

A social worker meets with a patient to help him keep up with his homework during his hospital stay.

March is National Social Work Month and this year’s theme is "Social Work Breaks Barriers," according to the National Association of Social Workers. Social workers across the Shriners Children's system are dedicated to doing just that!

Shriners Children's Social Workers Break Barriers

“Breaking barriers is something all of us social workers do every day,” said Shriners Children's Northern California social worker Courtney Krakie. “Our job is to help families solve the other stuff so that they can focus on their child’s medical healing.”

On any given Wednesday Krakie can be found wearing her T-shirt that reads "Everybody Poops: Shriners Children’s Pediatric Colorectal Center" as she darts around the hospital. Wednesday is Krakie’s dedicated colorectal center clinic day, where she works with patients with colorectal and gastrointestinal conditions. She wears the T-shirt to normalize talking about colorectal issues with children and families. It's just one of many examples of how she is working to break barriers as a social worker to advance patient care.

“Every day is different,” said Courtney. “I never know what new challenge or opportunity will arise. That’s part of what I love about my job."

Krakie and social workers like her across the Shriners Children’s healthcare system are integral members of each patient’s care team. While some patient care team members focus on a patient’s surgery and physical rehabilitation needs, social workers focus on helping patients and families navigate the psychosocial and emotional components of healing. They work closely with doctors, nurses, physical therapists, school instructors and child life specialists to ensure patients and families have the necessary resources to overcome any barriers standing in the way of their physical and emotional health while they are recovering.

courtney a social worker

Courtney, a social worker at Shriners Children's Northern California, shows off her Pediatric Colorectal Center shirt.

A Day in the Life of a Social Worker

A typical clinic day for a social worker can start as early as 7 a.m. After settling in, they may attend a meeting with a multidisciplinary care team to discuss patients currently in the hospital and those coming to the clinic that day. The team discusses each patient, their medical progress, and any additional support a child and family might need.

Then their days are spent meeting with patients and families throughout the hospital – assisting families in crisis, filling out immigration paperwork, navigating insurance matters, and accessing food, clothing and housing support.

“Social workers provide hope in situations where patients and families feel overwhelmed,” said Trudy Wong, social services manager at Shriners Hospitals for Children — Canada. “A social worker compliments the information provided to families by the medical team. Once the medical plan is established, social workers ensure that everything is well understood, and they have the resources and capacity to enact the medical plan.”

meet maria

Maria at her desk with her "Social Work Month" banner.

Persistence and Problem Solving

Social workers understand the importance of persistence and problem solving when it comes to helping patient families overcome barriers.

“Sometimes in this job, you just can’t take no for an answer,” said Krakie. “We’re always searching for more options, more opportunities and different ways to solve a problem. We can’t give up after the first try.”

Krakie recently worked with a fellow social worker to figure out why a 4-year-old patient hadn’t received insurance authorization for a new wheelchair. He had grown out of his current chair and his mother didn’t know why the insurance company hadn’t approved a new one.

After many persistent calls to the insurance company, Krakie and her colleague noticed critical insurance documents had been delivered to a neighbor’s home instead of the patient's. Thanks to the social workers persistent investigation, the boy received authorization for his new chair.

“It took both of us and some problem solving, but we finally figured it out and the boy got his new wheelchair,” said Krakie. “It was something so simple ... mail going to the wrong address.”

Patients and families are often confused about what social workers do at the hospital. Cindy Shimabukuro, a social worker from Shriners Children’s Hawaii, and her fellow social workers across the network take every opportunity to educate people inside and outside the hospital about their role.

“A common misperception is that there is only one role for a social worker,” said Shimabukuro. “Our role is to support families and provide resources so patients can receive medical care and have positive outcomes. It takes some time to build trust and let families know we’re there to help them.”

maria talking with a family

A social worker meets with a family to discuss their care plan.

Personal Ties to Social Work

Many Shriners Children’s social workers were drawn to the work because they themselves benefited from social work as children.

“My parents are primarily Spanish-speaking. When I was young, my parents needed help with translating during their county and housing appointments,” said Maria Ortez, a social worker at Shriners Children’s Southern California. “They would bring me to those appointments so I could translate and complete any paperwork for them. I appreciated the assistance my parents and my family received from good caseworkers. I told myself that one day I would help people.”

Krakie was also drawn to social work at a young age after seeing firsthand how a close friend benefited from support from a social worker.

"When I realized there was a job that’s all about helping people, I said 'sign me up'. I knew that was what I wanted to do,” said Krakie.

Social workers from across the Shriners Children’s network mention that developing relationships with families and watching kids grow over the many years they work with them is an especially gratifying part of the job.

“Social workers have opportunities to be included with patients and families at multiple points during their medical journeys,” said Lauren Wepprich, a social worker at Shriners Children’s Portland. “Seeing the patients’ progress, not only medically, but also with their overall confidence and autonomy, is immensely rewarding.”

“I get to meet so many amazing children, all with different stories,” said Mayra DeJesus, a social worker from Shriners Children’s New England. “I have the opportunity not only to help them with whatever need they have, but also learn from them. I have created great relationships throughout all the hospital departments. Being part of the different clinics, as well as helping out in the rehabilitation department, provides me with ongoing learning and interaction with families.”

“We get to spend years with our patients,” said Krakie. “We get to watch them grow. Some of our prosthetics patients are followed by Shriners Children’s from birth to age 21. We get to watch them grow up. Those long-term relationships are what makes the work so special.”

helena and cindy in front of shriners children's hawaii

Social workers from Shriners Children's Hawaii pose for a photo outside the hospital.

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