The University of Sheffield is the first in the UK to offer its medical students a taste of social work through an intensive course, during which they spend one week shadowing social workers. Natalie Valios reports.
The adage “catch them young” has its uses. As health and social care become more integrated, practitioners from both professions are striving to put the theory of joint working into practice, while seeking to understand each other’s stance.
But wouldn’t the process be more straightforward if they had already gained an insight into how the “other half” operates during their training? Certainly, results from the University of Sheffield suggest this to be the case.
The university is thought to be the first in the UK to offer its medical students a taste of social work. It may be the start of things to come, as the university – along with Sheffield Hallam University – has been awarded a £250,000 Department of Health grant to explore joint training and come up with recommendations.
It is the second year that the University of Sheffield has run the intensive course, during which first-year medical students spend three weeks shadowing social workers, nurses and doctors.
The aim is for students to gain an insight into all aspects of looking after people, says Nigel Bax, the university’s director of teaching at the school of medicine and biomedical sciences. It is intended to broaden their thinking away from the medical model, and give them insight into the links with other care sector staff that they will need to develop in their professional lives, he says.
Helped by Sheffield, Rotherham, Doncaster and Barnsley social services departments, over 240 students spent a few days accompanying social workers at family support centres, residential units, care leavers’ drop-ins, prisons and mental health services.
Alice Fenton is a first-year medical student. As well as seeing social work practice for the first time, she also mixed with nursing students during the placements. “By getting us working together earlier, rather than when we qualify, we have already built up those relationships. If you want full teamwork, you get it going from day one. Then it’s never questioned after that,” she says.
Fenton shadowed Winston Campbell, team manager for family support at Sheffield social services department. He wanted to impart a sense of what family support and preventive work is all about, so Fenton saw where initial referrals come in and how they are followed through, went to a couple of home visits, saw the duty team at work and sat in on a couple of closing sessions.
Her impression of social workers before the placement was probably indicative of most on her course. Apart from “taking children away from their families and providing Zimmer frames”, she admits she had little inkling of what the job entails. That negative view has been revolutionised, as it has for her peers.
“My view totally changed when I worked with social workers. I have a lot of respect for those doing the job. It is not a nine-to-five job – it offers a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week service. It’s hard to switch off from some of the stuff they deal with when they go home. It takes a certain type of person to do it.”
Fenton feels that students gained a valuable insight into the service, as well as learning what can be done by health professionals to make social workers’ lives easier, such as providing all the relevant information for a referral.
“It was invaluable. And it wouldn’t do social work students any harm to have a few days on the wards too,” says Fenton.
Campbell thinks the placements achieved what they set out to do – provide a snapshot of the work carried out by social services and make students more aware of issues faced by social workers.
“These students will go on to work with families. It’s important that they take back the message that we are agencies that should work together to improve outcomes for children and families,” he says. “It can only be good that we have a better understanding of each other’s pressures. It’s a start and long may it continue.”