When we speak of fields that might be transformed or enhanced by technology, we usually think of industry, healthcare or finance. But we often underestimate how new technologies could transform fields like social work, since it’s so focused on the human. But technology has, is, and will continue to change what it means to be a social worker, and how they work.

We can expect technology to help alleviate their workload, address some of the staffing issues in the field, and help tackle new challenges they have to face. Let’s take a look at exactly how technology can benefit social work and the people they work with, the new skills social workers of tomorrow will have to develop, and the impact technology could have on forming the new crop of social workers.

Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.

– Mother Teresa

Social Work and Telehealth

Video conferencing tools can now be used by social workers to provide consultations at distance. The issue, however, is that personal information has to be safeguarded under the provisions laid out by the HIPAA. However, telehealth is and will continue to be a powerful tool for social workers and for clients.

No longer do workers have to drive miles for meetings, and people in underserved areas could have greater access to resources. They don’t have to be limited by their geographic area. We could even see networks where clients will be able to work with the social worker that they want, or be assigned one based on a series of criteria, without ever having to meet them face to face. Some of the biggest benefits of telehealth in social work include:

  • Immediate assistance in critical situations
  • Allows clients to stay in a comfortable environment
  • Ability to work with different counsellors, healthcare professionals, or family members at once
  • Conduct group interventions
  • Greater access

Some people may simply not want to have to be in a clinical setting, and might be more open if the option of consulting at distance is offered. This could also be convenient for clients currently in rehab, who may not be able to be as mobile as they’d like, but who’d still like to speak to a worker they’re familiar with.

Video conferencing tools can also be used in other more complex cases as well. When asked about how video conferencing technology helps with social work and its possibilities, doctor Brian Christenson from Capella University talked about the many instances where it could be useful.

“Videos can be used for everything from follow up visits with clients, to finalizing adoptions in court”, he says. “It removes barriers,” he continues. “It used to be that we couldn’t provide services to clients if they weren’t on site.” He was specifically referring to clients in remote areas who otherwise would have no way to access a provider.

Collaboration Tools

Another area that has been greatly improved by technology is the dissemination and storage of information. Collaboration is easier than ever as well. People no longer have to jump from desk to desk to get important files, and can collaborate on one document from wherever they are. Important information can be sent in seconds between social service agencies and caregivers.

Technology and Research

The internet is also a treasure trove of information, and a great resource for social workers. They can learn best practices and new methodologies at a touch of a button. They can stay current on all the recent changes in the industry, get continued training, access newsletters published by reputable social work agencies, and more.

For instance, the ASWB and NASW both have influential newsletters that help social workers have greater success rates during interventions and navigate through changes. Social workers can also get access to peer-reviewed research, online webinars, and exchange with other professionals through social media.

Case Management Technologies

One of the most beneficial aspects of technology for today’s social workers is when it comes to case management. Social workers often have lots of different cases to juggle, and case management technology allows them to keep track of priorities, not miss important appointments, and also allows them to keep track on the progress or issues certain clients have to deal with.

This is also an area where automation can have a significant impact. Management tools like Eclipse for instance can help social workers automate repetitive tasks and workflows in the office, giving them more time to actually focus on cases. It is estimated that a social worker can spend more than 30% of their work week manually updating cases. We can only imagine how much more could be done if that number was cut, even if it was but by a half.

With regular non-automated solutions, information is not pushed through, and workers have to waste a lot of time working on repetitive tasks. For instance, if the worker is working with a whole family, they have to enter each member’s information manually. All of this could be automated. An automated system allows social workers to:

  • Avoid note repetition
  • Get on the road earlier
  • Get last-minute updates on the go
  • Avoid unnecessary back and forth trips to the office
  • See progress or regression of cases from wherever they are
  • Use dedicated workflows to automate essential, but menial tasks

With this kind of system, workers don’t even need to go to the office in the morning and can hit the road as soon as they’re ready. Visits at the offices could be limited to training days, team reviews, or team formations. With the current shortages and congestion in the system, we can expect more professionals and government agencies to embrace automation.

Could We See Robots Take Over Social Work?

While social workers are not yet in danger of getting their jobs stolen by robots, robots could start being introduced to perform some of the functions that were reserved for social workers. For instance, robotic pets are already being used in the treatment of dementia, and allow social workers to help patients exteriorize their feelings. However, the usage of these robots to work with regular clients is already a cause for controversy and debate in certain circles.

Professor and founding member of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control Robert Sparrow stated that the use of animaloid robots was unethical and misguided. The reason for this is that users have to actively delude themselves about the true nature of the robot and their relation with them.

Still, robots are being used in healthcare in a number of ways, and could change the future of assisted care. Robots can be used to remind patients to take medication, monitor vital signs, and help with a variety of home tasks such as cooking and cleaning for instance. It’s only a matter of time before AI and machine learning evolves to a point where they’ll be able to entertain some basic conversation, and be used as tools for self-assessment.

Online Education

Online education is another breakthrough in the world of social work, and could help feed the increasingly shrinking talent pipeline. This could provide an accelerated path to form the social workers of tomorrow.

Students can now get their masters in social work online, and get their degree in as little as two years. In addition to allowing students to finish much faster, online social programs allow students to:

  • Avoid having to quit their current position
  • Stay in their home state
  • Get a more flexible schedule
  • Have greater access to teachers
  • Interact directly with teachers, even in a crowded class

The convenience of online programs is what makes them such an attractive option. Since they’re not local, students can take them from wherever they want, whether they’re in the country or not.

Not only that, but they’re far from impersonal. Students often build an even tighter bond with their teachers through online classes. Teachers make themselves available for discussion in and outside of class, and students have access to lots of support. Students can also interact with their peers through dedicated online communities.

Recruitment and Job Search

Technology has also made it easier for students to find work once they leave school. They can find opportunities in a click, whether it’s in their state or the other side of the country. They can take interviews at distance as well using tools like Skype. Sites like Indeed and Monster have tons of listings in sectors like school social work, medical social work and clinical social work. Technology has made it nearly impossible for professionals in a high demand field like social work to not find a position.

Fundraising

Another area where technology could help is fundraising. The field is still using antiquated tactics such as newsletters, mainstream media, direct mailing, etc. A lot of it is done through volunteering work as well. Fundraising plays a central role in social work, and there is no better tool than technology to facilitate it.

While there is no software that can help with fundraising for social work per se, we can see a future where fundraising events could be held completely online, and donations made directly through SMS for instance. Crowdfunding is still in its infancy, and platforms could be dedicated solely to matters of public health and services.

Technology and Advocacy

Phone calls and letters are still being used for advocacy, but are slowly being overtaken by blogs and other forms of new media. Email campaigns targeting lawmakers and interest groups are increasingly common, as well as the use of video talks to raise awareness to causes.

Platforms like TED talks have become catalysts for social change. These platforms, when used the right way by the right people, can be incredible tools to raise awareness. Organizations should spend as much time trying to reach politicians as reaching the public if they want to truly spark change. Social media campaigns can also be powerful tools to push people to take action.

The Challenges

However, while technology and social innovation could help, there is also a lot of concern around how technology is used. Some of these include:

  • Data protection and privacy
  • Lack of preparation and formation for new workers
  • Lack of resources
  • Reluctance from users
  • Lack of evidence on the impact and effectiveness of new methods

The most important, however, is making sure that workers have the technological literacy necessary, and stay abreast of new developments and global policies in social work. This is why the ASWB and NASW have started working on standards for technology and social work practice. The goal of these standards is to:

  • Be a guide to help social workers seamlessly integrate new tools with their services
  • Improve and maintain the quality of services
  • Allow for evaluation and monitoring of how technology tools are used
  • Inform government bodies, agencies, and clients on the usage of new technologies in social work

They cover things such as access, ethics, vulnerable populations and cultural competencies. In addition, they also cover risk, regulatory, and privacy considerations.

The Limits of Technology

Another thing that is important to recognize is that there are aspects of social work that will never be able to be overtaken by technology. As a matter of fact, social work remains one of the disciplines where full automation is the least likely. According to NPR, social work only has a 0.3% risk of full automation, since it is one of the most difficult positions for robots to fill. This also makes it a very promising field with great prospects for the future. 

Technology is set to have a profound impact on the way clients interact with social workers, and how social workers approach their work. For the most part, these changes should be beneficial. However, social workers will also need to adapt, and will need to acquire a whole new set of skills if they don’t want to be rendered obsolete. Only those that will be able to stay on top of these changes and learn how to use them to their advantage will be able to thrive.

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