By: Lucas Celebrezze, LISW, MSW
What does a public health TB social worker do? When a social worker hears this question, many thoughts may go through his or her head. These thoughts may include: I just set up a guy with food stamps today. Yesterday, I referred someone to a mental health provider for his PTSD symptoms. The day before, I was helping someone locate a medical facility for an ailing family member in Sub-Saharan Africa to get tested for TB, since the family member was previously in contact with my patient who has active TB. Job duties of a public health social worker working in a TB control program definitely vary on a daily basis. Flexibility and the ability to handle change effectively are crucial skills needed to assist clients with daily needs.
The primary goal for a local tuberculosis (TB) control program is to medically treat, to control, and essentially to eliminate TB in the jurisdiction that is being served. A TB social worker assists those who have active TB and those who are at risk of developing active TB. As in many social work settings, TB social workers are a part of an interdisciplinary team that works together to increase patient treatment compliance. TB social workers work with staff doctors, nurses, medical assistants, and language interpreters to help achieve this compliance.
Linking Patients with Healthcare
TB social workers can be of great assistance to patients who need to find the right doctor to address specific health issues. For example, at times, TB patients need radiological exams, such as CT scans and MRIs, to aid staff doctors in their diagnostic procedures. A TB social worker can assist patients with the process of getting set up with a radiologist to provide these exams. The TB social worker can also help find a provider who accepts the patient’s insurance. If the patient is uninsured, the social worker can serve as an advocate by assisting the patient in applying for applicable financial assistance programs. This can be crucial for the patient’s TB compliance, since many patients find themselves in a position of financial worry as a result of the high medical costs of specific exams.
New American Advocacy
The United States has historically been a destination for new migration. For numerous reasons, every year, people from various regions of the world immigrate to the United States. Some of the countries of origin of our New Americans have a high prevalence of tuberculosis. Once a New American comes to the United States, he or she may need to be treated for TB. Navigating through the healthcare system in the United States can be a challenge for people who have lived in the U.S. all their lives. It can be even more of a challenge for a person who has just moved here from a foreign country. TB social workers can serve as advocates for patients by arranging interpreters for healthcare appointments, coordinating services with local social service agencies, and working with resettlement agencies to ensure New Americans are getting the tools they need to make their life’s transition easier. By alleviating some of the stressors that New Americans face, the TB social worker can help increase TB control compliance rates.
At times, a homeless TB patient may struggle with completing treatment because of the very nature of being homeless. Our homeless population may face the inability of staying at a specific shelter on a regular basis, thus creating a constant state of transition. This creates a problem for TB staff members attempting to locate patients to give them needed medications. A constant housing transition can also cause patients to miss doctor’s appointments. Lack of transportation can also be a problem. The TB social worker can assist by locating patients, assisting them with permanent housing options, and helping with coordinating transportation to ensure patients get to their needed TB appointments.
Patients with active tuberculosis may need to be in respiratory isolation. This means that the patient needs to stay at his or her place of residence until he or she is cleared by a medical doctor to be out of isolation. This can have a great deal of impact on a patient’s life. While the patient is on medical isolation, the patient is unable to work but still needs to pay for rent, utilities, and food. The TB social worker can intervene here and assist patients by linking them to appropriate community resources to assist with these needs. The social worker can serve as an advocate and as an authorized representative to help complete needed procedures to assist patients with signing up for assistance from community agencies. TB social workers can work with patients on their coping skills, which can help them deal with the emotional ramifications of having TB.
TB Social Work Case Study
A 49-year-old Sub-Saharan African-born male patient arrived at his local TB control program after being hospitalized and treated at an area hospital for active pulmonary TB. The patient lived alone in a government subsidized apartment and had a very small support system. Because of his TB and other health conditions, the patient lost his ability to work, which made it difficult for him to afford groceries, medications, utilities, and transportation. The patient also had no primary care doctor and needed assistance with coordinating TB and non-TB medical procedures. He also spoke very little English, which created another obstacle for him when trying to obtain assistance.
Social Work Interventions
In collaboration with language interpreters, the social worker was able to do the following for this patient:
- Assisted patient with obtaining Food Stamp benefits to help with groceries and other nutritional needs. This was exceptionally important, since the patient was diabetic.
- Assisted patient in completing the application process for Social Security Disability benefits and Medicaid.
- Coordinated with local lung specialists to arrange pulmonary and radiology appointments.
- Located a primary care doctor for the patient who accepted patients who are uninsured and who have limited income.
- Transported patient to various medical appointments and appointments at local welfare offices.
- Obtained nutritional supplements that the patient was unable to afford, even with Food Stamps.
- Coordinated with various community resources to obtain medications for the patient’s diabetes and other health conditions.
- Utilized local community resources for the patient to help pay utility costs.
With the patient nearing a successful completion of TB treatment, he had been linked and oriented with numerous community resources that were able to continue to assist him with his medical, social, and basic needs as he transitioned out of the TB control program.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, tuberculosis (TB) is a disease caused by germs that are spread from person to person through the air. TB usually affects the lungs, but it can also affect other parts of the body, such as the brain, the kidneys, or the spine (Centers for Disease Control Web Site, 2009, http://www.cdc.gov/tb/publications/factseries/prevention_eng.htm). Social workers, along with anyone who is working with someone with active TB disease, need to have the appropriate education about preventing the spread of TB and need to be knowledgeable about how to protect themselves. Prior to commencing work with an active patient, one needs to be tested for TB by his or her medical provider or by the TB control program in his or her locality. He or she also needs to be wearing the appropriate mask when coming into contact with patients. This needs to be handled professionally and delicately to help patients avoid feeling further isolated.
Working in public health can be a very rewarding experience and a great way to broaden your social work experience and enhance your social work skills. Those seeking employment in the public health sector may contact their local or state health departments, board of health, or local university’s public health college to inquire about openings or possible shadowing opportunities. For those social work students who are interested, a field placement in the public health sector can be a good way to get acquainted with social work in different areas of public health.
For More Information
Public Health Social Work
Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention: Tuberculosis
Lucas J. Celebrezze, LISW, MSW, is a public health social worker and field instructor. He has worked in the public health sector since 2005.