In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Medical Illness

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks and Handbooks

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Social Work Medical Illness
Allison Werner-Lin, Maya H. Doyle
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0083


For the purpose of this bibliography we define medical illness as physiological deviations from typical body function affecting individual or collected body parts, organs, and systems, for which commonly agreed upon diagnostic labels and treatments are identifiable or evolving. Social scientists and physicians continue to debate and parse out core constructs that are encompassed under the rubric of medical illness. The broad realm of possibilities embedded in the task of annotating the literature on medical illness required careful selection of topics and pieces. We took a noncategorical approach by considering commonalities across illness experiences, rather than focusing on the literature of medical subspecialties, though we provide disease-specific examples. We acknowledge that this list is not exhaustive, yet it provides the health social worker with the conceptual and practice resources needed for ethically sound services across health care settings and dilemmas. This bibliography aims to assist social workers in conceptualizing and framing medical illness in the context of self, family, and community throughout the life cycle. Social workers must remain cognizant of advances in medicine and technology, as well as changing health care systems and policies that directly impact the care, resources, and outcomes available to patients (also see Health Social Work). For this reason, we address classic and contemporary literature on illness conceptualization, current trends in patient care, a series of individual, family, and community-based interventions commonly used in health settings, and changes in public policy over the last quarter century that impact the ways individuals and communities address illness, access resources, and experience health-related challenges. Illness can be a galvanizing force in the life of patients and caregivers. Narratives of illness from patients, providers, and popular media provide vital insight into this experience. Although unconventional for an academic bibliography, we include a list of selected documentaries and popular films, along with written works of fiction and nonfiction, which provide windows into the lived experience of illness. Although the distinction between physical and mental illness is, in itself, somewhat fictitious and highly contested, the two are often grouped in social work curricula. For this bibliography, we elected to address aspects of mental health only as they relate to the experience of a medical illness, diagnosis, or treatment. Mental, behavioral, or social disorders are beyond the scope of this piece and are addressed expertly elsewhere.

Textbooks and Handbooks

These selected texts provide an overview of social work practice across health settings, disease groups, and patient populations. The biology textbook Ginsberg, et al. 2003 is easily understood and used by social workers in applied practice settings. The authors explored links between basic physiological processes, human behavior, physical and social environments, and disease outcomes. The second edition of Gehlert and Browne 2011 was designed for classroom use in a graduate-level social work curriculum, with chapters written by experts in a range of applied practice settings. McCoyd 2010 is similar in design, with chapters written by experts across the health spectrum, but this text was grounded in the unifying principles of developmental and systems theories. Carter and the Council on Social Work Education 2006 developed a text also for use by social workers in the classroom. Carter and colleagues focused on four behavioral health topics and developed each in greater depth and breadth than topics covered in the other texts.

  • Carter, C. S., and Council on Social Work Education. 2006. Social work and women’s health: Resources on health, empowerment, advocacy, and literacy (HEAL). Alexandria, VA: Council on Social Work Education.

    The text uses four exemplars (prenatal care, depression, substance abuse, and HIV/AIDS), including teaching tools for classroom use, to enhance provider knowledge, skills, and health literacy. Carter supports the text with feminist research, intervention strategies designed for women, and gender-sensitive analysis of policy and advocacy practice.

  • Gehlert, S., and T. Browne. 2011. Handbook of health social work. 2d ed. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

    This edited volume is divided into three sections; one addresses conceptual, pragmatic, and empirical foundations of social work practice in health settings. The second addresses specific practice issues across settings, and the third identifies special practice areas in which social work plays a significant role on interdisciplinary disease management teams.

  • Ginsberg, L. H., L. Nackerud, and C. R. Larrison. 2003. Human biology for social workers. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

    This text integrates social work theory with human biology to explore assessment of behavior and environmental contexts. The text reviews basic human biology, anatomy, and physiology. Then authors introduce natural selection, evolution, and the life course and conclude with a chapter on critical thinking in health contexts.

  • Kerson, T. S., and J. L. M. McCoyd, eds. 2010. Social work in health settings: practice in context. 3d ed. New York: Routledge.

    This edited volume profiles exceptional programs, policies, and service delivery changes on patients, families, and communities. The volume addresses work throughout the life cycle and includes extensive sections on maternal/fetal medicine and pediatrics, as well as community advocacy work.

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