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Digital capability within social work

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Information and access, Innovation, Knowledge and skills

I am pleased to welcome Tommy Reay as my guest blogger this week. Tommy is a qualified and registered social worker with NHS Digital. Having worked in a wide range of front line settings, he is now part of NHS Digital Clinical Informatics Fellowship scheme.

Here, he reflects on the need for digital capability and the opportunities it brings to enhance our practice. This blog is very timely, especially with Social Work England on the horizon and with it the chance to strengthen professional standards in this vital area.

Tommy Reay: 'Considering how fundamental digital technology is in everyday life, there is surprisingly little weight given to it in social care settings.'

Tommy: Social workers, like anyone else, see the good and bad of digital technologies. You could describe our relationship with digital technology as a tale of “the good, the bad and the ugly”. Our experiences have sometimes been good, sometimes bad and on occasion downright ugly.

I have recently moved from frontline social work practice to NHS Digital as part of their Clinical Fellowship programme, looking at how digital and data is used across the adult social care sector and how it could be improved.

Having worked in community and hospital social work settings, as well as the wider social care sector across the country I understand that frontline social work is rewarding but it can also be very challenging.I firmly believe that technology and data can make the job easier, safer and improve service user experience.

When I think back to my training there was, rightly, a great deal of emphasis on anti-oppression, person-centred practice and the value of theories, but nothing relating to digital capabilities, use of technology or use of data in the workplace.

Furthermore, the Professional Competency Framework (PCF) for social workers (which articulates the skills and values required to practice) makes no mention of being a digitally minded practitioner.

Considering how fundamental digital technology is in everyday life, there is surprisingly little weight given to it in social care settings.

So what does a digitally minded practitioner look like? They are aware of both the benefits and the limitations of digital and technology, in relation to systems as well as frontline care.

With this mindset, they are able to understand and use of a range of available technologies to share information and tailor support for people.

This neither means slavishly implementing digital solutions in a wholesale one-size-fits-all way, nor does it mean eschewing digital as ‘not human enough’. It means appropriate digital practice – understanding the role that digital can play and how it can underpin person-centred care.

I think there is a need to define how digital skills, understanding and capability form part of the social work role. But we also need to look at ‘digital availability’ – what is already there for social workers to use and what needs to be in place for them to deliver care effectively.

We need to get back to basics.

Do social workers have access to work emails outside the office? Can they share information easily with care provider or health partners? Can they access clinical or care provider information easily?

I didn’t and couldn’t in my social care roles. Yet in my personal life I don’t have to be at home to communicate with other people, order a taxi, plan a holiday or sort out my finances. So why are our work lives digitally behind?

It’s easy to say that a lack of investment is responsible for this digital delay. And that would be true to a certain extent. But there has historically also been a lack of appetite to seize opportunities, to move things on, to evolve.

In 2017, NHS Digital in conjunction with the Social Care Institute of Excellence (SCIE) spoke with a number of social workers relating to IT in social work.

In this study 98 percent of social workers described at least one difficulty with information sharing and 92 percent stated a keenness to embrace digital technology to make the job better.

This is an encouraging sign that there is an increased awareness of the possible benefits of digital technology in social care and a growing enthusiasm for how this all might work.

IT systems that work and embrace digital technology feed into a better working environment and job experience as well as providing high quality data which can be used to inform policy from the top down.

Conversely, poor data equates to poor policy and bad technology breeds a tired and disillusioned workforce.

It’s a big ask, but at NHS Digital we are working to support and improve the relationship between social work and technology. However I believe this needs to happen on a wider scale to really grow our digital maturity.

Digital capability needs to be embedded in all social care settings and conversations; from the lecture halls of universities, to the conversations happening with individuals about how digital services can support their care, and the social work organisations making decisions on both a local and national scale.

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  1. Comment by Helen posted on

    Please could you provide to correct link for the 'IT in social work' report? The one in this article doesn't work

  2. Comment by Alex Shore posted on

    At Derbyshire County Council they've introduced an app that allows us to access work emails and calendars on our own mobile phones. Obviously some staff are provided with a work mobile but many aren't, including social work staff. There's no obligation to download the app onto your own phone but as a Project Manager, I've found it life changing. Obviously I can't access any client data or send sensitive emails to external partners, but just being able to access emails and my calendar on the go is so, so useful.
    The problem is, of course, balancing digital progress with data protection. Ideally there would be a national case management system for social workers - so if a person moved across borders, staff at the authority they moved into could easily see notes from the previous area. But obviously that's pretty much impossible as every authority uses systems differently and have different workflows. Don't you just wish that you could rip everything up and start from scratch?

    • Replies to Alex Shore>

      Comment by Mark Osterloh posted on

      Thank you for your comment Alex. The benefits of technology in the health and care space is a welcome early priority for our new Health Secretary Matt Hancock. Also, one of the aims of the new regulator Social Work England will be to use data to challenge and improve social work practice, creating a more agile and efficient system of professional regulation.

      Best wishes

      Blog site manager/editor


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