The role of social workers in rehabilitation

According to a report by the World Health Organization, more than 2.4 million people around the world live with a health condition that could benefit from rehabilitation. In America, a 2019 survey revealed that 366 million people are living with a condition or disability that can be alleviated by rehabilitation. This number increased by more than 130 million since 1990.

These figures largely represent people living with physical conditions, like injuries or illness. They do not take into account the millions of people who need mental health rehabilitation from drug and alcohol addiction and other related conditions. Social workers play a key role in all types of rehabilitation.

When many people think of a social worker, they imagine a professional who visits families or individuals who are troubled in one way or another and in need of different types of resources. They may be poor, experiencing violence, or in need of certain government services, and it is the job of the social worker to help them navigate through these issues.

While this is true, social workers also play a huge role in the rehabilitation of members of society.

As you contemplate what you can do with an MSW degree such as the one offered by Florida State University, you may want to think about whether you should specialize in rehabilitation. Your focus would be on helping individuals recover and become independent and productive. A master’s degree in social work is a great way for someone to contribute to their community and help those in need. The online degree from FSU teaches all the necessary skills and complements theoretical training with placements. This gives a prospective social worker the chance to see what a typical workday in the specialty of their choosing looks like.

Those specializing in rehabilitation can work in the military with returning soldiers, with people who are suffering from addiction or with families that have loved ones who need rehabilitation. They can also specialize in providing physical rehabilitation services within a healthcare institution.

What is rehabilitation in social work?

Rehabilitation can be defined as a set of measures designed to assist patients who experience disability in one form or another with the ultimate goal of making them independent and productive members of society.

The process of rehabilitation restores the capacity to cope in one’s environment, makes them more resilient to daily challenges, and helps boost mental and physical wellbeing.

Social workers offer different types of rehabilitation for their patients.

Medical rehabilitation

This is considered curative and restorative and is necessary when disability is caused by illness. It aims to help an individual re-develop their physical, mental and social function so that they can live their lives as normally as possible. If, for example, someone has been in a coma for several months, when they wake up they will need medical rehabilitation to help them recover normal movement, speech and other functions that may be affected by their condition.

Educational rehabilitation

Educational rehabilitation teaches patients skills to help them cope with everyday life. They may need to relearn speech, mobility, or how to read and write. A good example of this type of rehabilitation is patients who have to be taught how to use braille after they lose vision either through an illness or an accident.

Vocational rehabilitation

Vocational rehabilitation focuses on economic empowerment. Candidates are evaluated to find out what obstacles stand in the way of economic independence. They are then matched with employment opportunities that are in line with their skills and abilities.

A good example of this type of rehabilitation is within migrant communities in America. Some of them are not able to find employment, for example, because of a language barrier or an inability to integrate socially. Rehabilitation results in placement in jobs where they are fully equipped to perform optimally. This type of rehabilitation can also be offered to those who suffer from disabilities. Blind, deaf or mute people, for example, can be placed in jobs that allow them to become independent.

Social rehabilitation

Social rehabilitation usually reintegrates patients back into society. It is often used to help people who suffer from physical or mental disabilities that hinder their participation in society. It is a comprehensive form of treatment that usually incorporates medical, vocational and educational rehabilitation.

Inpatient vs. outpatient rehabilitation in social work

Social workers provide both inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation for their patients.

Inpatient social work is provided to patients in healthcare institutions. Social workers schedule visits and provide required care within the confines of the institution. It is recommended for those who are not able to go home for a variety of reasons. In many cases, inpatient care is recommended because rehabilitation requires specialized equipment that can only be found within a hospital or clinic.

Outpatient rehabilitation is the type that is undertaken at home. It can be more challenging for the social worker. Not only do they have to travel to reach their patients, but they also have to work without the support of any other medical staff. However, some social workers specialize in this type of rehabilitation because it allows them freedom and flexibility that may be absent if they were to be confined within a healthcare facility.

Determining whether a patient will receive inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation is the job of the treatment team. Ideally, the social worker should be involved right from the beginning as it helps them design more effective treatment plans.

The patient is also involved in making the decision. They can decide whether it is more beneficial for them to be confined to the hospital and receive their rehabilitation there, or they can go home and schedule visits with their social worker.

Whether a patient chooses inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation, the social worker needs to keep in mind that it is a highly patient-centered process. The treatment team takes into account the patient’s preferences and desires and carefully tailors their treatment plan to suit their goals.

What is the role of the social worker in rehabilitation?

The role of the social worker varies depending on the type of rehabilitation they aim to provide. However, some responsibilities do not change.

Initial screening of patients and their families

The social worker, together with other medical professionals who are involved with the patient, works out what kind of rehabilitation and support is needed to restore the patient.

They assess the injury or disability and in consultation with the patient, and their family come up with a treatment plan. These plans are not written in stone. They can be adjusted as rehabilitation continues.

Helping the patient, family and friends deal with the condition

This can be the most difficult aspect of providing rehabilitation. Oftentimes, social workers find that what stands in the way of improvement is attitudes, and they have to deal with them if they are to experience real gains through rehabilitation.

Many soldiers who are injured on the battlefield, for example, find it difficult to re-integrate into their families and communities because they feel diminished in some way. It is the job of the social worker to counsel everyone involved and help them understand that the disability is a setback that they can all overcome if they work together.

Walking patients and families through treatment and rehabilitation options

The shift towards patient-centered treatment means that social workers must take into account the desires of the patient and family when choosing treatments.

They should lay out all the available options and explain the benefits and drawbacks of each and then allow the patient to choose, without undue influence, what they feel most comfortable with.

They are advocates for their rehabilitation patients

Apart from providing direct rehabilitation services, the social worker are also advocates for their patients, to make sure that they have the right medications and equipment to help them through the process.

If more money is needed, for example, to buy equipment that can help a patient regain mobility faster, the social worker might help them apply for government funding towards some of the costs.

Educating patients on the recovery team’s role

It can be overwhelming to deal with so many care providers, especially for those who are recovering from an illness that has caused a disability. The social worker is the contact point for the patient. They explain the roles of everyone who will be working with them through the rehabilitation process.

Liaison between the patient and the treatment team

If the patient has some feedback that they would like to give one of their carers they can talk to their social worker. Likewise, the treatment team can communicate with the patient through their social worker.

Patient assessment

Throughout the rehabilitation period, the social worker is tasked with assessing the patient to find out whether recommended treatments are working.

They consult with everyone else in the treatment team and write comprehensive reports about the patient’s condition.

If certain treatments are not working as expected, the social worker coordinates the other members of the team, and together with the patient they come up with alternative forms of rehabilitation that can deliver better results.

Teaching post-hospitalization care

This is for patients who opt for outpatient rehabilitation. Patients who have lost their everyday abilities through an illness or an accident often require a lot of home care.

It is the job of the social worker to ensure that those at home know how to provide it. Together, they discuss the importance of different medications and when they should be administered.

The social worker demonstrates hygiene and basic care procedures and also discusses diet and exercise.

Post-rehabilitation follow up

After the patient has completed rehabilitation, the social worker schedules occasional visits to assess how they are adjusting to life.

If further treatment or rehabilitation is needed they make sure that it is available.

What role do social workers play in addiction rehabilitation?

Addiction rehabilitation is different from other forms of rehabilitation. The patients have an additional obstacle that they have to overcome, and it can often be more difficult to restore clients to their full function.

Clinical social workers are equipped to deal with this type of rehabilitation. Becoming a clinical social worker requires a master’s degree. These social workers have a strong background in mental illness and how to treat it, and they work closely with psychiatrists and psychologists to help patients recover from addiction.

For those who choose to focus on helping addicts through rehabilitation, their roles will include:


For a social worker, an intervention involves talking with the addict and their family to understand the extent of the problem, its effects, and the resources that are available to help overcome the addiction.

Interventions usually involve bringing together the patient and their family to lay bare the problem so that the client can understand how critical it is that they get treatment.


Therapy is about talking to the client to determine the root cause of their addiction. The social worker unravels the reasons why the client feels the need for drugs or alcohol to deal with their problems. They suggest alternative ways of coping with the stressors that compel the destructive behavior.


Clinical social workers are trained to guide addicts through the process of detoxification. They coordinate with other care providers to ensure that their patients can go through it safely and achieve the desired results.

Psychiatric work

In many cases, addiction leads to psychiatric illnesses that require hospitalization. The social worker ensures that the client gets admitted to the right hospital. They work with the treating doctors to determine what treatments are needed and how they should be administered.

Justice system

It is not unusual for social workers to be involved in the justice system. They may be required as advocates for their clients, they may be asked to provide support for families that are left behind when breadwinners are incarcerated, they relocate children when their parents are arrested and they also provide court testimony when it is necessary.

How challenging is rehabilitation in social work?

Social work is not easy. It requires empathy, dedication and a determination to help others. Guiding people to overcome obstacles so that they can become fully-functioning members of society takes patience.

Rehabilitation in social work is even more difficult. It is time-consuming and there are all sorts of unexpected hurdles along the way. Some patients take to therapy quite easily and can restore full function within a few months. With others, it can take years to see an improvement.

A social work degree equips a social worker to do the job. They learn how to assess clients and determine what care they need, and they also learn how to guide them through the rehabilitation process.

Although these are essential professional qualifications, certain soft skills make the job easier.

Patience is regarded as an essential soft skill for social workers. They must learn to let people move at their own pace, encouraging them along the way until they regain full function and can participate fully in their lives.

Social workers must also be gentle. In the same way that doctors and nurses have a bedside manner, the social worker must display gentleness towards their clients. No two patients are alike, so they must strive to understand everyone under their care and learn what motivates them.

Successful social workers are culturally sensitive. They serve a wide array of patients from different backgrounds. Some are rich and some are poor. Some are well-educated and some are not. Some clients are religious and some are not. Some are well-cultured and others are boorish.

The social worker learns to treat all their clients equally, ensuring that they have access to all necessary resources, therapies and treatments.

Good social workers also know that they cannot afford personal entanglements with their clients. However pitiful a situation is, however much one empathizes with a client, they cannot do anything that encourages the client to think of them as more than their social worker.

Social workers must strive to be professional at all times, and they must know how to gently rebuff clients who may become too attached to them. Some social workers go as far as getting others assigned to patients who may become too attached. If a patient oversteps, a social worker should let their superior know and discuss the best course of action so that they can achieve the most favorable results for all involved.

Lastly, good social workers learn continuously. It will not help their career to rest on their laurels. What can be done with an MSW degree is limited only by hopes and aspirations.

One may start by providing rehabilitation services to their clients, and with additional qualifications, they can climb to a management role. Some social workers become government advisors or consultants in non-governmental organizations. Others open up clinics and expand services to reach underserved demographics in their communities. With the right qualifications, it is possible to reach the highest levels of social work.

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