Social workers included in new plan for the clinical treatment of people with dementia

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China’s National Health Commission recently published the Work Plan to Explore Special Services for the Prevention of Dementia. The plan recommends the creation of professional service teams to diagnose, treat and care for patients with mild cognitive impairment and dementia. The teams will include general practitioners, volunteers, social workers and psychiatrists.

Apart from continuing the programmes contained in the National Basic Public Health Services for Elderly People’s Health, the new plan makes it clear that grassroots medical service centres and clinics have to employ the AD8 Dementia Screening Interview and the community dementia analysis methods to conduct their cognitive evaluations of elderly people. Institutions like care homes also need to have regular cognitive evaluations for senior citizens, and if they find any dementia patients or suspected patients, they should recommend their families to send them to special medical institutions for effective treatment.

According to the plan, social workers will be able to enter hospitals and join the special service teams for people with cognitive impairment and dementia. In spite of the limited area of practice, the plan can be seen as displaying society’s recognition of social workers and of their qualifications and professional skills. It also opens the door for social workers to join medical teams and be included in the general medical services. Within the special teams for dementia patients, general practitioners will lead social workers and community volunteers to take the relevant cognitive trainings, while psychiatrists will provide them with psychiatric training. Social organisations that specialise in these areas can equally be helpful and supportive in providing assistance to social workers and volunteers to facilitate them to work in hospitals.

Other types of medical or clinical workers in medical institutions of all levels and public health service centres will also be provided with regular professional trainings, as the Commission’s work plan stresses. It also suggests to include modules related to early stage dementia diagnosis into the community doctors’ further education programmes.

In fact, the previous Action Plan to further improve the medical services published by the National Health and Family Planning Commission had already required medical institutions to set up a system for medical social workers and volunteers which could coordinates cooperation between doctors, medical students, nurses, medical social workers and volunteers so they could help the patients in their medical treatment, daily problems and legal affairs. In practice however, this cooperation rarely occurs. Most of the time, medical social workers only focus on patients’ issues in daily life and their legal affairs, and they do not normally engage in medical diagnosis or treatment.

The newly published plan, however, contains more detailed practical guidance for medical social workers to work with other medical staff. For instance, for patients who are staying in hospital or are in the process of receiving treatment, medical social workers will be able to assess their mental situation by applying the psycho-social diagnosis model. If any patients or their family members have suicidal intent, social workers can make a judgement based on their assessment and intervene quickly. Medical social workers can also assist patients and their relatives to gain a better understanding of their condition, and provide consulting services for patients and their relatives regarding information on treatment, rehabilitation and clinical care.

The publication of this Work Plan by the National Health Commission will no doubt create increasing opportunities and wider paths for social workers to work with various medical teams. This action will not only benefit social workers as a group, but also benefit other medical workers, medical institutions, the patients and the relatives who stand behind them.