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March/April 2013 Issue

Software Sea Change — Tech Gains Traction
By Lindsey Getz
Social Work Today
Vol. 13 No. 2 P. 8

Technology intended to make everyday life easier has permeated our culture. We use mobile phones to send texts or e-mails on the go. We can check into airports faster using automated kiosks, and we do our banking from the comfort of our home with online services.

So it’s not surprising that technology solutions are being developed for social work as well. Imagine being able to easily access neatly organized data about your clients or read old case notes without having to decipher handwriting.

Social services software programs offer assistance with managing caseloads by organizing files electronically, making client contact information searchable or more easily accessible, and monitoring client progress, among many other tasks. Still, as with any change, there are downsides, and many organizations are finding the implementation process to be challenging.

“I think one of the biggest reasons that social services software is gaining traction is the carryover from healthcare,” says Mike Meikle, CEO of the Hawkthorne Group and an IT consultant with experience in the human services sector. “The two fields are related and have interaction. Since we’re seeing a huge influx into the healthcare software development scene, it’s no surprise that social services are being exposed to that and want it too, especially the ability to access data.”

But whether social workers are readily adopting this kind of technology or dragging their heels appears to depend on the overall purpose of implementing it. “Social work practitioners are not different from most other professionals when it comes to adopting technology,” says Dick Schoech, MSSW, PhD, a professor in the University of Texas at Arlington School of Social Work. “They like cars with navigation systems, smartphones, and good televisions and household appliances. However, they resent software systems which require additional time from their busy schedules to input information that helps managers and not themselves.”

Nonetheless, social services software offers possibilities for today’s social worker, and implementation will mean transformation on many levels.

Why Go Electronic?
Social services software can offer a variety of capabilities, from managing employees (eg, employee productivity reports) to managing cases. Meikle says social workers essentially are looking for their own version of electronic medical records to service their specific needs. They want data to be easily accessible and mobile.

But like anything, there are pros and cons to social services software. Schoech says software can make routine tasks such as collecting information, educating clients, monitoring client progress, and conducting follow-ups easier along with structuring assessments and making sure all assessment areas are covered.

“However, technology is not good at nonroutine tasks, such as exploring multiproblem situations that are complex, exploring feelings, emotional exchanges, caring compassion, empathetic response, addressing reactions such as anger, and negotiating a treatment plan,” Schoech adds. “For these high-level social work skills, software can support the clinician by sending reminders or reinforcing what was covered in treatment.”

In other words, social services software does not replace the clinician; it is merely a support that can help the clinician deliver better care and more efficiently manage cases. Additionally, social services software can help clinicians be more efficient because they can complete more tasks for similar costs, Schoech says. “For example, technology lowers costs of routine processes and procedures, such as record-keeping and financial management,” he says.

With the automation of certain services, providers can better meet some clients’ experience-based expectations with most businesses, he adds. “It is also easier to obtain additional funding for agencies with well-functioning technology due to the ease of generating good data about what an agency does,” he says.

Using an electronic system and digitizing files can increase social workers’ flexibility and mobility. “Social work often requires meeting clients or others in remote locations,” Meikle says. “Having the capability to access data from the home office or reports that you don’t have with you is a huge benefit. People are expecting this functionality when they get out in the field. They no longer want to be lugging around a briefcase full of paperwork or even a big laptop. They want a mobile device that’s available in a slimmer form but still has all the information needed at their fingertips, such as a tablet. It’s all about gaining a mobile footprint.”

Facing Pushback
Anytime an organization experiences dramatic change, there will be pushback, Meikle notes, and there are important reasons for that. He explains that implementing social services software raises big questions, such as “Does the organization truly have the will or the ability to make this massive change? It’s not just about cost. It’s about how you train workers on this new technology. Training them on a new system is a big challenge that organizations have to face. You also have to think about your work processes. Many times the way you do business as a social worker is incredibly affected by the systems you have in place. By changing that system, you have to modify your entire business process. That can be a big change to adapt to before you start seeing any benefits.”

In this economy, cost always is a factor, but the technology itself is just a small portion of the total cost of software implementation. The training and downtime in work processes as users adapt often is a much bigger expense. “There’s this whole human and business process side to software implementation that often gets forgotten,” Meikle says. “An organization may spend a large sum on the new software and be focused on that figure as the primary expense, but the truth is the implementation process is where the cost can come into play even more. If people aren’t comfortable with the technology or take a while to adapt, you’re talking about a lot of downtime.”

Schoech agrees and notes that support doesn’t come cheap. “Technology staff and expertise are expensive,” he says, “and keeping up-to-date with rapidly changing technology is expensive, and human services do not have the money to do this.”

It’s also important to consider information privacy and security, Schoech adds. “If online thieves can steal from banks and governments, which have unlimited resources to spend on privacy and security, the money-strapped social services will typically have difficulty protecting client privacy and security,” he says. “Clients do seem unconcerned about privacy and security when they are hurting and most in need. However, if problems arise, then they become concerned and can seek legal recourse if the provider has not been taking the necessary steps to protect their privacy and information.”

Schoech says the bottom line is that making smart decisions regarding technology is difficult because there is a lot to consider. But the technology isn’t going away, Meikle adds, so that means finding ways to adapt. “Managers can’t implement these types of systems in a vacuum,” Meikle notes. “That’s one of the most important points I always try to drive home. You can’t lose sight of your people in the process of implementing new software. If your people aren’t willing to get on board with the technology, no system you put in place will be successful. It can’t be a technology-run project. The implementation of software has to be driven by the people side of social services—that is, the ones who are actually going to be using it.”

— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Royersford, PA, and a frequent contributor to Social Work Today.