Understand Key Terms to Excel in Your Social Work Career

10 Medical Terms That Every Medical Social Worker Should Know

Social workers work with a wide range of people—from military to children and families—in a variety of settings. Medical clinical social work is unique in that practitioners must be able to balance communicating to two vastly different groups—hospital staff and patients. You must be adept at understanding and translating medical terminology so the average patient understands. AllPsychologyCareers.com states, “Medical social workers are, in all instances, advocates for their patients. They are often the eyes and ears of the therapeutic team, yet they serve patients' best interests. They express concerns to the team, and they ensure that the patient's physical, psychological, and social needs are identified and fulfilled. They also ensure that patient rights are respected and addressed.”*

Medical terminology can certainly seem as if it is its own language. Those choosing to become medical social workers will want to have a solid grasp of the terminology, especially if your degree program has a concentration in healthcare or medical social work. For starters, here are 10 medical terms to know. Of course, dependent upon your area of expertise (e.g., pediatrics, oncology, transplant), you will have to know and understand more specific terms related to your Bachelor of Social Work or Master of Social Work (MSW).

  1. Acute is defined as any condition “characterized by sharpness or severity of sudden onset” and “having a sudden onset, sharp rise, and short course” such as in an acute illness or an acute inflammation. An example of an acute disease is acute lymphocytic leukemia (an acute cancer).

  2. Adverse event is a medical term used clinical investigations or research. It has two distinct differences when you speak of a non-serious adverse event and a serious adverse event (SAE). The US Department of Health and Human Services gives the following definition:

    “Any untoward or unfavorable medical occurrence in a human subject, including any abnormal sign (for example, abnormal physical exam or laboratory finding), symptom, or disease, temporally associated with the subject’s participation in the research, whether or not considered related to the subject’s participation in the research.”

  3. Comorbid or a comorbidity has “several definitions…based on different conceptualizations of a single core concept: the presence of more than 1 distinct condition in an individual.”§ For instance, in mental health you might see the phrase, “the comorbidity of anxiety and depression in Parkinson’s disease.”

  4. Efficacy is “the ability of an intervention to produce the desired beneficial effect in expert hands and under ideal circumstances” or “the ability of a drug to produce the desired therapeutic effect.”** You will most often hear this phrase used when discussing the medications your patients take each day and their effectiveness.

  5. Psychosocial is a term that is central to social work practice and is a key component of the online MSW and doctoral coursework at Walden. “The psychosocial approach looks at individuals in the context of the combined influence that psychological factors and the surrounding social environment have on their physical and mental wellness and their ability to function. This approach is used in a broad range of helping professions in health and social care settings as well as by medical and social science researchers.”††

  6. Metastasis is a term you will hear used when referring to cancer patients and the state of their disease. The National Cancer Institute gives the following definition:‡‡

    “The spread of cancer cells from the place where they first formed to another part of the body. In metastasis, cancer cells break away from the original (primary) tumor, travel through the blood or lymph system, and form a new tumor in other organs or tissues of the body. The new, metastatic tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if breast cancer spreads to the lung, the cancer cells in the lung are breast cancer cells, not lung cancer cells. The plural form of metastasis is metastases (meh-TAS-tuh-SEEZ).”

  7. Myopathy refers to a clinical disorder of the skeletal muscles, which help move the limbs and other parts of the body.§§ Myopathies occur as abnormalities of muscle cell structure and metabolism leading to various patterns of weakness and dysfunction. This sometimes includes the cardiac muscle. Many conditions contribute to having a myopathy such as Lyme disease and muscular dystrophy.

  8. Pharmacokinetics is more often a term used in drug interactions within a patient and is defined as the study of the bodily absorption, distribution, metabolism, or excretion of drugs.

  9. Remission also refers to cancer-related illness. Cancer.gov defines it as “A decrease in or disappearance of signs and symptoms of cancer. In partial remission, some, but not all, signs and symptoms of cancer have disappeared. In complete remission, all signs and symptoms of cancer have disappeared, although cancer still may be in the body.”‡‡

  10. Triage is “the sorting of patients (as in an emergency room) according to the urgency of their need for care.” If you work in an emergency setting, you will become very familiar with this term and what it means. Hospital social workers in the emergency department help ensure communication with families during a crisis situation. You can also utilize the skills you gained through your social worker degree to provide services that patients need at home to avoid unnecessary hospital admissions.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering a CSWE accredited online BSW program and MSW program. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.


*AllPsychologyCareers, Medical Social Worker, on the Internet at www.allpsychologycareers.com/career/medical-social-worker.html.

†Merriam-Webster Online, Acute [Def. 1 and Def. 2], Pharmacokinetics [Def. 1], Triage [Def. 2], on the Internet at www.merriam-webster.com.

‡U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Unanticipated Problems Involving Risks & Adverse Events Guidance, on the Internet at www.hhs.gov/ohrp/regulations-and-policy/guidance/reviewing-unanticipated-problems/#Q2.

§ J. M. Valderas et al., Defining Comorbidity: Implications for Understanding Health and Health Services, The Annals of Family Medicine, 7(4), 357–363. doi:10.1370/afm.983.

**Dorland's Medical Dictionary for Health Consumers, on the Internet at http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/efficacy.

††K. Woodward, Psychosocial Studies: An Introduction, New York, NY: Routledge, pp. 3–4, 7–8.

‡‡National Cancer Institute, Metastasis, Remission, NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms, on the Internet at www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms.

§§P. Muthusamy and J. Tavee, Myopathy, The Cleveland Clinic Foundation, on the Internet at www.clevelandclinicmeded.com/medicalpubs/diseasemanagement/neurology/myopathy/#top.

Walden University’s Master of Social Work (MSW) program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), a specialized accrediting body recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). CSWE’s Commission on Accreditation is responsible for developing standards that define competent preparation for professional social workers and ensuring that social work programs meet these standards.

Note on Licensure
The minimum academic credential required to obtain licensure to practice as a social worker in most states is a Master of Social Work (MSW) from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Walden University’s MSW program is accredited by CSWE.

State licensing boards are responsible for regulating the practice of social work, and each state has its own academic, licensure, and certification requirements.

Walden recommends that students consult the appropriate social work licensing board in the state in which they plan to practice to determine the specific academic requirements for licensure. Walden enrollment advisors can provide information relating to the state-by-state requirements for licensure. However, it remains the individual’s responsibility to understand, evaluate, and comply with all licensing requirements for the state in which he or she intends to practice. Walden makes no representations or guarantee that completion of its coursework or programs will permit an individual to achieve state licensure, authorization, endorsement, or other state credential as a social worker.

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission, www.hlcommission.org.

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