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  • 100 Years of Caring: Clinical Social Work at Rhode Island Hospital

  • 1913Caring Hands

    • Department of social services established at Rhode Island Hospital; 818 cases referred in its first year of operation.


    • Bess Medary (1893-1987) is appointed first director of Rhode Island Hospital’s department of social services. She served as director of social services at the hospital for 40 years before retiring in 1963. In 1926, with Dr. Henry Wyler, Medary founded the first heart association in Rhode Island.

    Early 1900s

    • Coverage extended to clinics including diabetes, syphilis and tuberculosis
    • Department works with Rhode Island Hospital’s training school for nurses to educate about social implications of illness and treatment
    • Department affiliates with the Boston College School of Social Work to establish a RI-based training site for professional social workers and to facilitate recruitment of medical social workers
    • Bess Medary publishes an article on the placement of the social services department within a hospital organization

    Social service initiatives during this period

    • Occupational therapy program launches to help long-term patients find useful means to occupy time
    • Dental program for children is established; it eventually becomes the Samuels Sinclair Dental Center
    • Appointment system for outpatient care launches
    • “Library on Wheels” is established via the Providence Public Library System
    • Onsite education offered children through the Providence school system’s hospital volunteer department
    • The department of social services receives a donation of an automobile to facilitate home visits. The department achieves an increase of 2,000 home visits within the first year of the donation.

    Late 1900s – 2000s

    • Department holds its 50-year reunion; Barnaby Keeney, president of Brown University, is keynote speaker.
    • Department organizes into parallel services to address the needs of medical, surgical, pediatric and psychiatric patients
    • Increases in incidence of chronic illness, the elderly population, and life expectancy bring about a need for adult convalescent homes
    • Social services assumes and eventually relinquishes primary responsibility for post-hospital planning
    • Department becomes affiliated with numerous schools of social work; an active student program put in place
    • The department’s name changes through the years, from “social services,” to “social work,” and finally, to “clinical social work”—which more accurately reflects the caliber and scope of services offered

    Clinical social work today

    • More than 40 social workers are now assigned to areas spanning across Rhode Island Hospital, providing: bio-psycho-social evaluations, treatment and referral directly to patients and families; consultation to staff; multidisciplinary collaboration; programmatic administrative support; research, and case management services. Social work – and licensed clinical social workers – remains integral to the patient experience and the hospital’s operations.