using tablet while talking with senior patient

Innovative Approaches: MSWs and Technology in North Carolina

Written by Helen Lewis

In 2023, researchers found that, though technology is dramatically increasing, and even coming to dominate, various sectors of the economy, “digital penetration is much lower in the development of and access to social services.”

Since the pandemic, the field of social work is racing to keep up with the transformative wave as Masters of Social Work (MSWs) leverage technology to redefine the way they engage with and support their communities.

From virtual therapy sessions to telehealth services and AI-driven interventions, MSWs are adopting innovative approaches to bridge gaps in accessibility and provide support to individuals in need. But are these changes always a good thing? And who has access to technological social work in the first place?

The Lasting Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic catalyzed a profound transformation in America, prompting a rapid, multi-generational embrace of technology.

As the pandemic compelled physical distancing measures and restricted face-to-face interactions, social workers had to adapt swiftly to ensure continuity in service delivery while prioritizing the safety and well-being of clients and patients.

One significant change is the widespread adoption of telehealth services in social work practice. When lockdowns and safety concerns limited in-person sessions, social workers turned to virtual platforms to conduct therapy sessions, assessments, and consultations.

This transition not only ensured the uninterrupted provision of essential services, but also highlighted the potential of technology to overcome geographical barriers.

Clients who may have previously faced challenges in attending sessions due to distance or mobility issues now had the opportunity to access support from the comfort of their homes.

Another, related and impactful shift was the integration of digital communication tools for ongoing client engagement. Social workers embraced video calls, phone calls, and messaging platforms to maintain regular contact with their clients, fostering a sense of connection during a time of heightened isolation. These digital channels not only provided a lifeline for emotional support but also allowed for the dissemination of critical information, resources, and coping strategies. In this way, technology became a conduit for maintaining the therapeutic relationship and delivering timely, relevant assistance.

The pandemic also underscored the importance of technology in data management and case coordination. Social workers began leveraging online databases and cloud-based platforms to securely store and access client information, ensuring the confidentiality and integrity of sensitive data. Collaborative tools facilitated communication and coordination among interdisciplinary teams, enabling professionals to work seamlessly across various locations while adhering to public health guidelines.

Furthermore, technology is now playing a vital role in community outreach and advocacy efforts. Social workers utilized social media platforms, webinars, and virtual town hall meetings to disseminate accurate information, raise awareness about available resources, and connect communities with support services. Online platforms have become instrumental in organizing and mobilizing collective efforts to address emerging social issues exacerbated by the pandemic, such as mental health challenges, domestic violence, and economic disparities.

The lessons learned during the early years of the pandemic, characterized by quick-thinking, flexibility, and innovation, are likely to shape the future of social work practice. It’s likely that the coming decades in social work will have a greater emphasis on the strategic and ethical use of technology to enhance service delivery and promote social justice.

Technology and the Elderly: Helping Everyone Understand

Empowering older adults with technological literacy has become an integral aspect of social work, ensuring that they can access vital services in an increasingly digitized world. Social workers play a pivotal role in educating older individuals about the use of technology to make services more accessible and convenient. Recognizing the importance of bridging the digital divide, these professionals provide guidance on navigating devices, understanding online platforms, and utilizing digital tools for improved access to essential services.

To effectively educate older individuals about technology, social workers often begin by conducting personalized assessments to understand the specific needs and challenges of each person. This allows them to tailor their approach, addressing individual concerns and building a foundation for meaningful learning. Workshops and one-on-one sessions are then organized to introduce older adults to the basics of technology, including using smartphones, tablets, and computers. Through patient and empathetic guidance, social workers help demystify the digital world, creating a supportive environment for learning.

One key aspect of this education process involves teaching older individuals how to access online health services, communicate with healthcare providers, and manage medical appointments through telehealth platforms. This not only enhances their healthcare experience but also contributes to better overall well-being. Additionally, social workers can help elderly people learn how to use virtual communications platforms like Zoom, WhatsApp, and FaceTime to maintain connections with loved ones and combat feelings of isolation.

Practical tips offered by social workers include encouraging older adults to start with simple tasks, such as sending emails or using video calling features, and gradually progressing to more complex activities, like navigating, ordering a taxi through ride-sharing applications, and meal deliveries. Social workers also stress the value of ongoing support and practice, recognizing that regular use of technology can boost confidence and proficiency over time.

Due to the prevalence of online fraud that can target older people, such as through phishing, social workers focusing on gerontological care would be wise to integrate safety skills for seniors to determine which messages may be coming from untrustworthy sources. Social workers could also raise seniors’ awareness about avoiding clicking on links or sending any sensitive information via email, such as bank account or social security numbers.

Improving Service Delivery

Through the integration of digital tools, social workers are refining the delivery of therapeutic services, employing virtual platforms for real-time engagement, and ensuring that the impact of their interventions is maximized. This shift towards technology-driven improvement is particularly evident in the realm of virtual therapy sessions and online counseling, where the immediacy and accessibility of communication contribute to more efficient and personalized client interactions.

The use of technology in social work not only improves the efficiency of service delivery but also addresses specific challenges associated with accessibility. Social workers are increasingly embracing telehealth services, conducting assessments and interventions remotely to overcome geographical barriers. This approach not only provides a convenient option for clients but also extends support to individuals who may face obstacles in attending traditional in-person sessions, such as a lack of access to transportation or mobility issues.

By leveraging digital communication channels, social workers are creating a more inclusive and client-centric experience, ensuring that their services cater to the diverse needs of individuals across different locations and circumstances.

Mobile applications and online platforms are playing a pivotal role in transforming the way social workers deliver support. These tools go beyond expanding reach by facilitating continuous engagement and empowerment. Social workers are utilizing technology to provide clients with access to educational resources, self-help materials, and interactive interventions, empowering them to actively participate in their own well-being. As the profession continues to evolve in the digital age, the integration of technology is not just a means of expanding reach; it is a strategic move to improve the overall quality, accessibility, and responsiveness of social work services, ultimately advancing the field’s capacity to meet the ever-changing needs of diverse populations.

Expanding Access

Today, technology is playing a key role in outreach efforts and information dissemination.

Social workers are leveraging digital platforms, social media, and online resources to reach diverse populations and raise awareness about available social services.

By utilizing targeted campaigns and creating engaging content, social workers can connect with individuals who might otherwise be unaware of the support services available to them. The use of technology in this context is a strategic tool for fostering community engagement and ensuring that information about social services is accessible to a wider audience.

senior using tablet for telehealth visit

Additionally, the integration of mobile applications and online portals provide a user-friendly interface for individuals to access information, submit applications, and connect with social workers. From unemployment benefits to healthcare assistance, the digitization of service delivery streamlines processes, reduces bureaucratic hurdles, and empowers individuals to navigate and access the support they require more efficiently.

Data analytics and technology-driven insights are helping social workers identify trends, assess community needs, and allocate resources more effectively. By leveraging technology to analyze demographic data, social workers can gain a deeper understanding of the specific challenges faced by different communities, allowing for more targeted, and thus, more impactful, interventions. This data-driven approach enhances the efficiency of social service delivery and enables social workers to address the root causes of issues, fostering sustainable positive change in the communities they serve. In essence, the strategic use of technology is empowering social workers to transcend traditional limitations and create a more accessible and responsive social service landscape.

Ensuring Everyone Has Access

Ensuring universal access to devices is a critical step in bridging the digital divide and fostering inclusivity in an increasingly connected world. One approach involves implementing government initiatives that provide subsidies or financial assistance to individuals with limited economic means. By making devices more affordable or even distributing them for free in certain cases, governments can significantly lower the barriers to entry for marginalized communities, ensuring that socio-economic factors do not hinder access to essential technology.

Community-based programs and partnerships with non-profit organizations also play a vital role in promoting device accessibility. Local initiatives can organize donation drives, refurbish used devices, or collaborate with businesses to secure discounted devices for distribution. Moreover, community centers and libraries can serve as hubs for technology access, offering free or low-cost access to devices for educational purposes, job searches, and other essential online activities. These community-driven efforts help create a support system that recognizes the diverse needs of different populations and tailors solutions accordingly.

In educational settings, schools can take proactive measures to ensure that every student has access to a device for remote learning. This may involve providing devices to students in need, negotiating bulk purchasing agreements to make devices more affordable, or establishing loan programs that allow students to borrow devices for the duration of their studies. Additionally, initiatives such as “bring your own device” (BYOD) programs can be implemented, acknowledging that many individuals may already own suitable devices but lack reliable internet access. Collaborating with technology companies, educational institutions can explore creative solutions to make devices and connectivity more universally accessible, thereby promoting equal opportunities for learning and personal development.

Still, these material considerations don’t fully resolve the issue of accessibility, even with telehealth. A recent study found that since the COVID-19 pandemic began, telehealth dramatically increased in use. However, “telehealth utilization was the lowest among people who were uninsured,” and, “[d]espite higher odds of overall telehealth use, Hispanic or Latino, Black, and Asian respondents were significantly less likely to use video telehealth … compared to their white counterparts.”

This finding coincided with researchers’ analysis that recipients of video telehealth reported a higher quality of care than those who connected with medical professionals through audio telehealth. The study also found that many of those who did not use video calling for virtual doctors appointments did so due to limited internet connections and access to technology.

Streamlining Processes

In the dynamic field of social work, technology can serve as a powerful tool to enhance efficiency and ultimately improve client outcomes.

Case management, a cornerstone of social work practice, has experienced a significant transformation through the integration of technology. Digital case management systems enable social workers to organize and manage client information, track interventions, and seamlessly coordinate services for their clients. This not only reduces administrative burdens but also ensures that practitioners can devote more time and energy to direct client engagement, fostering a more client-centered and responsive approach.

Communication and collaboration within interdisciplinary teams are essential components of effective social work. Technology facilitates real-time communication and data sharing among team members, promoting a coordinated, holistic approach to client care. Secure messaging platforms, shared online documents, and virtual meetings enable social workers, counselors, healthcare professionals, and other stakeholders to collaborate efficiently, exchange information, and make informed decisions collectively. This streamlined communication not only enhances the quality of care but also accelerates the decision-making process, ensuring timely and comprehensive support for clients.

Data collection and analysis is a critical part of social work, particularly as it relates to advocacy. Automated data entry systems reduce the likelihood of errors and enable practitioners to compile and analyze large datasets efficiently, which can then be incorporated into reports for stakeholders, academics, and policy-makers.

This data-driven approach not only enhances the understanding of community needs for social workers and their organizations, but also enables social workers to identify trends and measure the impact of interventions so that they are legible to people with influence, such as local officials, donors, government services, and non-profit partners. By streamlining data processes, technology empowers social workers to make informed decisions that are grounded in empirical evidence, promoting effectiveness and accountability in the field.

Cultural Competence and Technology in Social Work

In contemporary social work practice, the integration of intersectionality and technology has become pivotal for fostering inclusive and effective service delivery. The concept of intersectionality, originally coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, emphasizes the interconnected nature of social identities and the unique ways in which individuals experience various forms of oppression. When coupled with technology, this framework propels social work professionals towards a more nuanced and tailored approach, ensuring that digital interventions address the diverse needs of individuals within complex social contexts.

Technology serves as a catalyst for transcending traditional barriers in service accessibility, allowing social workers to reach diverse populations with greater precision. Virtual therapy sessions conducted through secure video conferencing platforms exemplify this synergy. By leveraging technology, practitioners can provide mental health support to individuals across different socio-cultural backgrounds, acknowledging and addressing the unique challenges shaped by their intersecting identities. The intersectionality lens prompts a thoughtful consideration of cultural nuances in the design and implementation of technological interventions, ensuring that they are both effective and culturally responsive.

Community engagement and advocacy efforts also benefit from the nexus of intersectionality and technology. Social workers leverage digital platforms to organize virtual events, disseminate information, and amplify the voices of marginalized communities. By utilizing social media, webinars, and online forums, practitioners can create spaces for intersectional dialogues, fostering awareness and understanding. Technology facilitates the democratization of information, enabling a more inclusive and diverse representation in advocacy efforts, and ensuring that the voices of those at the intersections of multiple identities are not only heard but also actively involved in shaping social change.

Data analytics, guided by an intersectionality lens, introduces a sophisticated layer to social work practice. By harnessing technology to analyze demographic data, practitioners gain insights that are crucial for understanding the nuanced experiences of individuals with intersecting identities. This data-driven approach enables social workers to tailor interventions, allocate resources strategically, and address systemic disparities more effectively. The intersectionality and technology integration thus emerge as an essential paradigm in contemporary social work, promoting a comprehensive and socially just approach to meeting the diverse needs of individuals within an increasingly digitized society.

The Ethics of Technology in Social Work

Still, not everyone is so optimistic about the use of technology to expedite social work, or to make it more accessible to underserved communities.

Some experts have argued that the use of “big data” in social work risks exacerbating the already-delicate power balance between MSWs, the organizations they work for, and the communities they serve. Researchers have also cited ethical concerns about data privacy and the sensitive data of marginalized communities.

In order to rise above these fears, researchers urge social workers and the organizations that hire them to sufficiently invest in high-quality tools that will maintain the privacy and quality of digital services offered to people in need.