A hidden jewel: Social work in primary health care practice in Aotearoa New Zealand

Stefanie Döbl

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Mosaic at the Giant’s House Akaroa

 While social work is well established in health care in Aotearoa New Zealand, it is under-developed in the primary setting. The potential for social workers to make a significant contribution to primary health care is often talked about.

Primary health is slowly becoming an important field of practice for social workers in New Zealand. The New Zealand (NZ) Ministry of Health’s primary health care strategy (2001) has an overall vision of better health for all and the reduction of health inequalities between different population groups.  This goal can be achieved by comprehensive, integrated primary health care (PHC) service delivery. One useful approach is to place social workers within PHC practices. Stefanie Döbl’s study (for her Master of Health Sciences, School of Population Health,University of Auckland) aimed to explore the perceptions about and the experiences gained by  social workers  in primary health social work roles about their contributions towards the PHC vision.

The qualitative study focused on three participant groups, namely social workers, PHC professionals and key informants. Overall, 18 one-to-one, semi-structured interviews were undertaken in various locations in NZ. Key themes were identified via a general inductive approach.


Stefanie reports three key themes emerging from the data: categorised as wider factors, organisational factors and social work factors. The last theme encompassed social workers’ professional understanding, knowledge and approaches. The organisational factors identified (a community needs focus and provision of a supportive work environment) and the wider factors identified (funding and issues experienced by communities) had thereby variable impact on these social work positions.

Participants viewed social workers as facilitating appropriate access to and engagement by people with services; enhancing ongoing, coordinated, safe service provision; and contributing to staff development.

The potential of the social work profession within PHC practices was well-recognised by non-social worker participants.

This study provides initial insights into the unique contributions made by social workers towards achieving Ministry of Health’s PHC vision.

A free full text version of the article is available here 

Döbl, S., Huggard, P., & Beddoe, L. (2015). A hidden jewel: social work in primary health care practice in Aotearoa New Zealand. Journal of Primary Health Care, 7(4), 333-338.


About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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