Our expedition through the ASWB exam outline continues with this: Primary, secondary, and tertiary prevention strategies. Let's take a look at what the terms mean, some examples, and then how this material may appear on the social work licensing exam.


Primary Prevention: Actions taken to prevent the onset of health problems or diseases before they occur by promoting health and wellness, reducing risk factors, and creating supportive environments.

Secondary Prevention: Interventions aimed at detecting and intervening early in the progression of health problems or diseases to prevent further deterioration or complications, typically during their asymptomatic phase.

Tertiary Prevention: Efforts focused on managing and reducing the impact of existing health problems or diseases, preventing recurrence, and promoting rehabilitation, restoration, and quality of life.

Strategies and Examples

In social work, prevention strategies aim to address various levels of need and intervention, ranging from preventing issues before they arise (primary prevention) to minimizing harm and preventing further negative consequences (secondary and tertiary prevention). Let's explore:

Primary Prevention

  • Community Education and Awareness: Social workers engage in community-wide education campaigns to raise awareness about social issues, promote healthy behaviors, and prevent problems such as substance abuse, domestic violence, or child neglect before they occur.
  • Policy Advocacy and Reform: Social workers advocate for policies and practices that address root causes of social problems, such as poverty, discrimination, and lack of access to resources. By advocating for systemic changes, social workers work to prevent social injustices and inequalities.
  • Early Intervention Programs: Social workers develop and implement early intervention programs targeting at-risk individuals or communities to prevent the escalation of problems. These programs may provide support, education, and resources to families, children, or individuals facing various challenges, such as mental health issues or school dropout.

Secondary Prevention:

  • Screening and Assessment: Social workers conduct screenings and assessments to identify individuals or families at risk of experiencing problems or crises. By identifying early warning signs, social workers can intervene promptly and provide appropriate support and services to prevent further harm.
  • Crisis Intervention: Social workers provide crisis intervention services to individuals or families experiencing acute stress, trauma, or crises. Through counseling, support, and resource linkage, social workers aim to stabilize the situation and prevent the crisis from escalating further.
  • Case Management: Social workers engage in case management to coordinate services and resources for individuals or families facing multiple challenges or complex needs. By addressing underlying issues and providing comprehensive support, social workers work to prevent further deterioration of the situation and promote stability.

Tertiary Prevention:

  • Rehabilitation and Treatment: Social workers provide rehabilitation and treatment services to individuals or families who have experienced significant harm or negative consequences due to social problems, such as addiction, violence, or homelessness. By offering counseling, therapy, and support, social workers help clients recover and rebuild their lives.
  • Supportive Services: Social workers offer ongoing supportive services to individuals or families dealing with chronic or long-term challenges, such as chronic illness, disabilities, or caregiving responsibilities. By providing practical assistance, emotional support, and advocacy, social workers help clients maintain their well-being and prevent further complications or crises.
  • Reintegration and Reentry Programs: Social workers develop reintegration and reentry programs for individuals returning to society after incarceration, hospitalization, or other institutional settings. These programs provide support, resources, and guidance to facilitate successful transitions and prevent recidivism or relapse.

Understanding whether you're implementing primary, secondary, or tertiary prevention strategies is helpful for several reasons:

  • Targeted Approach: Knowing the level of prevention allows for a targeted approach to addressing issues. Each level requires different interventions and strategies tailored to the specific stage of the problem. For example, primary prevention focuses on promoting behaviors and reducing risk factors, while tertiary prevention involves managing existing conditions and preventing complications.

  • Resource Allocation: Different levels of prevention may require different resources, expertise, and infrastructure. By identifying the appropriate level of prevention, resources can be allocated more efficiently to meet the needs of the population or individuals being served. This helps optimize resource utilization and maximize the impact of interventions.

  • Timing of Interventions: Understanding the stage of the problem helps determine the timing of interventions. Primary prevention efforts are typically implemented before the onset of the health issue, secondary prevention focuses on early detection and intervention, and tertiary prevention addresses existing conditions. Knowing when to intervene can improve outcomes and prevent further harm or complications.

  • Prevention of Escalation: Implementing the appropriate level of prevention can help prevent the escalation of problems. By intervening early or promoting preventive measures, it may be possible to stop the progression of issues before they become more severe or irreversible.

  • Promotion of Well-being: Each level of prevention contributes to promoting overall well-being and improving outcomes. By addressing health issues at different stages, individuals and communities can be supported in maintaining good health, preventing illness, and managing existing conditions effectively.

On the Exam

This material may show upon the ASWB exam looking something like this:

  • Which of the following interventions is an example of primary [or secondary or tertiary] prevention?
  • A social worker is designing an intervention program for a community with high rates of obesity. The program aims to address the issue of unhealthy eating habits and promote better nutrition. Which level of prevention is the social worker focusing on?
  • A social worker is assigned to work with a group of individuals who have recently been discharged from a psychiatric hospital following acute episodes of depression, many of whom are struggling to reintegrate into their communities and manage their mental health effectively. 
    By implementing a program of ongoing support, on which level of prevention is the social worker primarily focusing?

Simple enough. (Answers: depends, primary, tertiary.) Get many, many more questions on many, many more topic areas with SWTP's full-length practice tests.

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March 27, 2024
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