The first time I crossed paths with a social worker was just after my A level examinations. My days as a relief teacher in a secondary school presented me with not only the opportunity to see what social workers do, but also interact with them. The social workers from the Family Service Centre provided casework management and support for the students and their family. Their work was impressive – they were able to make a real, positive impact on the students' lives. I was amazed, and wanted to see if the profession was suitable for me. Hence, I decided to major in social work during my undergraduate days in National University of Singapore.
Now, as a medical social worker, I work in the medical setting with other healthcare professionals to provide holistic care for my clients, supporting them when their social situations are compromised due to illness and disease.
As people often think we do not need any special skills or training to become a medical social worker, a common misconception is that we are volunteers. This is not true. We have to undergo professional training so that we can be equipped with the skills to take on the different tasks expected of us every day.
Not only do we need to mobilise resources through partnerships with healthcare and community stakeholders to help patients and their families manage their medical conditions, we also provide counselling for distressed patients and their family members as they cope with the challenges of their medical conditions.
One of my most memorable experiences was when a young pregnant patient was admitted due to a stroke. Her baby had to be delivered first before we could proceed with the treatment. Her husband had a special request – he wanted to witness the birth of their child, or at least see the baby before the baby was transferred to KK Women's and Children's Hospital (KKH). To fulfill his wish, I had to work closely with the clinical teams in Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) and KKH to make it to happen. Due to the difficult circumstances, we were allowed into the operating theatre but could only see the baby post-delivery. It was a really unforgettable case because I managed to somewhat fulfill the father's wish. The medical team was also very understanding and supportive, which helped to make the process easier.
My fondest memory is of a patient whom I had worked with for close to eight years. She required financial assistance for her medical bills and I saw her once every six months. Even though both she and her husband had physical disabilities, they were not deterred from working hard to bring up their three children. I had watched the children grow up and helped them to apply for financial aid for their studies and daily expenses. Seven years on, they are now in their early 20s! All three are on scholarships and in a year's time, the patient will have three healthcare professionals in the family. One will be a nurse, another a physiotherapist and the third an occupational therapist. The patient proudly told me that she would no longer need to apply for MediFund assistance, and joked that I would not need to see her anymore. Having walked together with the family through the years and seeing their resilience and determination to do well in life heartens me. I am glad to have been part of that journey and have also learnt how important it is for medical social workers to build on the unique strengths of each patient in order to improve their lives.
Melissa (second from right) with her colleagues at work
Through all my years as a medical social worker, there have been many highs and lows each time I attend to a patient. Each has their own story and they all have their strengths no matter how dire the situation is and I am humbled and grateful to be part of their journey. For those who aspire to be a medical social worker, the most important thing is to have fun as there is always a positive side to our work. During the lows, do share your feelings with your fellow colleagues and understand that you are not alone. Make time for yourself to do the things you enjoy.
My name is Melissa Chew, and I am a Principal Medical Social Worker at TTSH and Woodlands Health Campus.
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