Many staffing-challenged communities may be overlooking an obvious relief valve: social workers. New findings from the University of Missouri reveal that this largely overlooked group can help improve residents’ care while trimming outlays.

Social work students employed at a local senior living community “gave new energy and life to residents” and “took pressure off nursing staff,” said Colleen Galambos, PhD, a professor in the university’s School of Social Work.

“Because social work students were on hand to help with family communication, nursing staff could focus on critical physical issues that really needed their specialized attention,” Galambos said. “Before, nurses may have been taking care of a wound while also dealing with family dynamics, which could detract from the amount of time to provide physical care. Together, the social worker and nurse provide holistic care to the patients.”

The researchers interviewed employees, from a variety of disciplines and positions, at TigerPlace, an independent living facility in Columbia, MO, who had interacted with graduate social work students, residents and residents’ families. The researchers asked staff members how the students contributed to client services, staff workload and family and client communication.

Staff members said they viewed the social work students as resources and sought their advice on communication strategies as well as behavioral and mental health issues. Staff members also reported the social work students positively contributed to client care and clients’ quality of life by increasing communication among clients, families and staff.

“Social workers often are the first staff to go when funding decreases, but they’re vital members of the care team,” Galambos said. “The improved quality of care and staff morale we saw in our study seems to come from the interdisciplinary approach that allows patients to get comprehensive, individualized care so they can age in place.”

Full study findings appear in Home Healthcare Now.