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Social work closing gaps

Published: 8 July 2017

Linda Ford received the NAIDOC Excellence Award from North West Hospital and Health Service for a very good reason.

The health service's Director of Social Work has a long history of helping people, and has this year been invited onto the Australian Association of Social Workers National Board as a Director.

She is the only Indigenous Director and the only person from Queensland Health.

In her role at NWHHS, Linda manages a team of three Indigenous Liaison Officers (ILO) and three social workers.

She describes her job as managing systems for safe, good patient care.

"You want people to come into hospital, get the treatment they need, and exit in a timely manner."

"Often social workers are involved when that system doesn't flow like it should. Social work is all about assisting patients through that system," Linda said.

"If the patient has problems with literacy and can't read their prescriptions, we step in to organise assistance in taking their medication, understanding why they need to take that particular medicine, what it does and who in the family can assist with compliance with the treatment plan."

"If the patient is prescribed medicines that need to be kept in the fridge, but they're living in the riverbed, we help with those sorts of problems, this happens too often."

An endless list of needs reads overwhelming for the non-social worker, but this is the day-to-day work of Linda's team.

"I like the work because unlike other parts of social work, this is usually quite short."

Social workers are also involved in end-of-life planning for palliative patients, advocating for the rights of patients to choose their treatment.

"Doctors and nurses are all about medicine because that's their job. But sometimes, especially at the end of life, that's not what the patient wants," Linda said.

Linda will be delivering a paper on anticipatory grief in Aboriginal communities at the Asia Pacific Joint Regional Social Work Conference in China in September.

This is her third time being asked to join the national board of social workers.

First Linda's father was sick with leukaemia, and the second time she was going to New York for a scholarship position at Mount Sinai Hospital.

Linda undertook research training and visited seven institutions across New York.

"Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan is also a cutting edge medical school. They do heart and lung transplants like we do tonsillectomies."

"At Mount Sinai it's also about research, developing high education and practice standards, and it's about managing social work as a business," Linda said.

Historically social work is about supporting people through systems, but Linda says research is changing things.

"If you want to provide more services for more patients, you need to have the staff to do it. To be able to do that, you need to justify how you're going to use the dollars."

Linda points out that Australia does not have to fight as hard for its health dollar under the supported system of Medicare.

"Because their (US) health dollar is so stretched and so fought over they really do need to be cutting edge, on the ball, and articulate with how they use their money, even in a social work department."

"One of the things their Director of Social Work said that stuck with me, was, 'you're either at the table or you're on the menu'," Linda said.

Linda has plenty of examples of social work as a money saver.

She describes a hypothetical diabetes patient who is non-compliant, mis-managing their medication, and constantly presenting to ED with 'hypos', or blood sugar spikes.

"ED presentations are expensive. If you spend half that money hiring a social worker to monitor that person's health needs, making sure they're linked in with a GP, ringing them to remind them of GP appointments, organising transport, organising follow up with their medication, you might have spent half the dollars but the chances of that person presenting to ED has also decreased. The idea is to decrease it so much that you're actually saving money. That's social work as a business," Linda said.

After graduating from James Cook University, Townsville in 1995 and working in Indigenous support services, Linda worked in child protection for 15 years in and around the North West.

Child protection remains Linda's passion, but she said she "needed to get out" after seeing one too many sad cases.

AASW - Australian Association of Social Workers