Recent changes in technology have had an substantial impact on the field of social services. From developments in Internet technology to the use of computerized client notes and medical charts, how client data is stored, shared and used has changed considerably. While there have been many benefits to these developments, social workers in educational systems, nonprofit organizations, hospitals and clinics may also struggle to keep up and use these technologies most effectively.
Technological developments have had an impact on multiple areas of social work. As part of the educational process, students who cannot afford a traditional social work education can now take part in distance learning opportunities, using the Internet to supplement their education, at a lower cost than full-time, campus-based learning. Technology has also changed the way that social work is practiced, giving clinical social workers a chance to offer therapy via the Internet. Clients can access therapeutic advice and support groups online, options that once were only available in person. In addition, Internet technology can also be used for advocacy work, with websites, social media and email used to raise funds and quickly mobilize people on behalf of a specific cause.
Traditionally, social work client notes have been written by hand. For social workers in private practice, these notes may be kept in files in locked cabinets, while for hospital social workers they are frequently part of the patient’s medical chart. Computerized notes and charts lead to improved efficiency and less paperwork. Rather than spending their time writing beleaguering handwritten notes, social workers who use computerized notes save time, allowing more time to be spent with clients. Computerized note-taking also streamlines treatment and lower errors in communication, since caregivers and social workers are not trying to decipher difficult handwriting, as often happens with traditional notes.
One of the primary concerns with regard to the use of new technologies in social work has to do with client privacy. This is tricky, particularly when multiple providers share software that holds confidential client information or when offices use email to discuss treatment. Competence in the specific technology being used is key. Social workers need to understand how to properly use computerized client information and know the risks involved. Opportunities for learning about these technologies as part of social work education, as well as for social workers already in the field, can help to increase competency and make new technologies more secure.
Changing from paper-based to computer-based systems can be challenging for social service agencies. This has to do with the complexities of using these systems in conjunction with the helping professions. For instance, technology vendors are used to working in the corporate world and the programs they sell may not fully take into account the intricacies necessary to ensuring confidentiality and streamlining client information. Similarly, the cost of new technologies may be beyond the budget of many social service organizations, particularly those that operate as nonprofits. However, when organizations find the right fit, these transitions can be successful and beneficial overall for both the organization as well as the clients.
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