5 Key Terms Every Medical Social Worker Should Know

While there is a broad definition of the duties of a social worker, it’s also true that each one must deal with a wide variety of clientele, and must know a great deal of specialized terminology.

However, if you work specifically in the medical subset of social work, it’s important to be familiar with several common medical terms. in addition, being able to properly explain the terminology used in a way that is understood by groups that may not have familiarity, like patients, is vital.

There are a variety of key medical terms social workers should learn as they progress in the field. But below are some basic terms that will be helpful to all medical social workers in the field.



According to the Department of Health and Human Services, adverse can be defined as “Any untoward or unfavorable medical occurrence in a human subject, including any abnormal sign symptom, or disease.” This term is typically used in relation to effects of medication or treatment on the human body in a clinical setting. A patient who is allergic to iodine, for example, will have an adverse reaction to it. Also, keep in mind that there are differences in meaning for non-serious and serious adverse medical effects.


Efficacy refers to “the ability to produce the desired effect,” in reference to a person and their skill set–a surgeon for example–OR, it refers to the ability of medicinal properties to produce the desired result–a pain reliever that negates all pain the patient is experiencing would have high efficacy, for example. It would be considered a very effective medication.


If you are a social worker that deals often with doctors and patients in the field of cancer, this is a key medical term you should know. Metastasis refers to the specific state or stage of the cancer in question. The National Cancer Institute defines metastasis as “the spread of cancerous cells from their original place of formation, to another part of the body. In metastasis, the cancer cells break away from the primary tumor and move through the body to form a tumor on another part.”


Another important term for medical social workers that relates to cancer treatment. Remission can be defined as a “decrease in or disappearance of” the disease in question. A patient in remission can be in partial remission, which would be a decrease in the presence of the disease, or full remission, which means the disease has disappeared entirely from the patient’s system.


If you’re a social worker in an emergency room setting, this term is important to know. Triage refers to the clinical sorting of patients with regard to the urgency of their care. Essentially, this means that every attempt will be made to treat patients with the most severe medical conditions first. Patients with less severe or time-sensitive conditions will be lower on the triage “list.”

These are just a few of the most basic and important terms for social workers in the medical field. Of course, depending on your specialization, you’ll want to research medical terms associated with that specific field, and how best to explain them to clientele if necessary. Every medical social worker should make an effort to include general terminology in their knowledge base, and branch out into specialized terms as necessary.

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