A group of colleagues in a conference

How Social Workers Use Technology

A broad portion of a social worker’s job is to interact face-to-face with clients, which means they rely on technology to help them manage their time and clients. The use of technology in their work comes with advantages and challenges. It’s great for managing projects, keeping meticulous records and sharing information across social service agencies. On the other hand, technology introduces new challenges to social work agencies, in terms of information security, technology reliability, and accessibility.

It is for these reasons that the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) and the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) developed in 2005 a set of standards for technology in social work practice.

Technology throughout a Social Worker’s Career

Social workers use technology in every facet of their careers, starting with their education, continuing through job searches, and lasting throughout their careers. Here are a few more specific examples of how social workers use technology:

  • Earning an education – Online programs are available for undergraduate and graduate social work degrees from accredited institutions of higher education. Our Lady of the Lake University’s online MSW degree program can be completed in less than two years for students who have bachelor of social work. Students new to social work can complete an MSW in about three years. It is a great option for those with an already busy life with family and career.
  • Finding employment – Today’s job search process often starts online and, if you are looking to move to a new location, can involve video-chat interviews. Sites include NASW’s JobLink, Social Worker Careers Magazine, and the well-known job-search sites CareerBuilder, Indeed, Monster and SimplyHired.
  • Taking and storing client notes – Rather than maintain a collection of handwritten notes, social workers use electronic systems for efficiently tracking and retaining data. Tools range from simple spreadsheets to complex project management platforms. Here are a few categories of software application platforms that social workers might use:
    • Electronic data management (EDM) services, electronic medical records (EMR), and electronic health records (HER) that are parts of giant digital warehouses of information used for managing patient/client care
    • Note-taking applications such as ColorNote
    • Web-based Google Docs and Google Sheets, which allow for collaboration on documents.
  • Conducting counseling sessions – Internet technology and live chats platforms such as Facetime and Skype make meeting with clients much easier and more efficient because they require the social worker to do less travel.
  • Broadly disseminating information – Innovative communication tools make distributing information among caregivers and social service agencies easier than ever. Google Docs and Google Sheets allow multiple users from unlimited locations to access documents, comment and share information. Also smart apps like Trello, Basecamp, Slack and other similar sites help keep social workers organized and have the added benefit of facilitating communication among groups of people who share resources but not necessarily locations.
  • Researching resources – Social workers have the ability to stay up to date on peer-reviewed research, social issues, and what other social workers are doing by following blogs, social media accounts and newsletters published by social work agencies such as NASW and ASWB.
  • Business operations and management – Social work managers monitor personnel, create programs, work with budgets and organizational finances, and communicate with other professional organizations, government entities, stakeholders, and employees with the help of technology.

Pros & Cons of Technology in Social Work Careers

While technology’s role in social work careers is filled with advantages, there are some concerns that must be addressed when incorporating technology into conducting social work:

  • The security of data and information storage leaves sensitive client information vulnerable to hackers. Not all servers, including e-mail and cloud computing systems, are secure and reliable. A breach in security could lead to client information and data being violated or released, which could have legal and other ramifications.
  • Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act that was passed by Congress in 1996 includes a section about protection and confidential handling of records by health care providers and organizations. Social work agencies that breach client and patient data could be penalized.
  • Unless information stored electronically, such as employee and client records, budgetary documentation, and professional plans are adequately backed-up, there is always a risk that information could become lost or erased during a system failure.

These concerns highlighted in the NASW “Technology Standards” guiding documentation are thus the case for the NASW to put forth a set of ethical standards by which social workers are to abide.

Social Work Code of Ethics

Technology standards notwithstanding, the NASW has an established social work code of ethics by which all social workers are expected to abide. These ethical guidelines are founded around the fundamental mission and values of social work, which are:

  • Service
  • Social justice
  • Dignity and worth of the person
  • Importance of human relationships
  • Integrity
  • Competence

The goal of the social work code of ethics is to attend to all people’s basic needs and to empower and enable individuals constrained by their circumstances, whether it is poverty, oppression, or some other kind of vulnerability. Thus, it is with this governing ethical body in mind that a set of technology standards was implemented.

Technology Standards

The goal of the technology standards is to ensure that the more social workers use technology, they are still comply with ethical regulations that protect client integrity and privacy. Specifically, technology standards stipulate that:

  • Regardless of communication medium, social workers must conduct their communications in a manner befitting of the Code of Ethics.
  • Social workers must ensure that technologies are accessible for clients, particularly those with disabilities.
  • Social workers must remain mindful of cultural and social contexts.
  • They must stay abreast of burgeoning technologies.
  • Regardless of the means of communication, social workers must abide by the regulations that govern their activities.
  • Social workers must provide their identities and verify those with whom they communicate.
  • Social work agencies will comply with laws protecting client rights, conducting electronic transactions, data and password protection, and so forth in the storage and transmission of client data.
  • To ensure the security of client information and to protect the organization, risk management assessments and practices compliant with the NASW Code of Ethics are to be implemented.
  • Technologies are to be used to inform communities and to promote the well-being of communities. Additionally, social workers using technology in lieu of face-to-face interactions will take whatever steps necessary to ensure safety and confidentiality.
  • Social workers must be able to determine whether or not technology-based intervention is beneficial or harmful, or if other measures need to be adopted.
  • Social workers should use technology to remain proficient in their fields, to take webinars and workshops, and to stay abreast of current research and professional support materials.

While there are ethical concerns that come with incorporating technology in social work careers, it is possible to overcome those issues. The many pros of using technology to conduct social worker jobs outweigh the cons. Advantages such as the ability to prepare more candidates for careers in social work; access to information, research, and resources; the ability to more expediently communicate with clients; the increased access to client information; and the ability to provide services to a greater volume of clients are all ways in which technology has positively changed the field of social work.