Eye on Ethics
August 2017 marks yet another very significant date in social work history. The NASW Delegate Assembly formally approved significant updates to the profession's venerable Code of Ethics. The revisions focus explicitly on ethical challenges pertaining to social workers' and clients' increased use of technology. They reflect a broader shift in social work practice related to technology that has led to very recent and noteworthy changes in regulatory (licensing board) standards, practice standards, and ethical standards.
Here is the broader context: Recognizing the profound impact that technology is having on social work practice, in 2013 the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) board of directors appointed an international task force to develop model regulatory standards for technology and social work practice. ASWB embarked on development of new technology standards in response to demand from regulatory bodies around the globe for guidance concerning social workers' evolving use of technology. The ASWB task force included representatives from prominent social work practice, regulation, and education organizations throughout the world.
The task force sought to develop standards for social workers who use digital and other electronic technology to provide information to the public, deliver services to clients, communicate with and about clients, manage confidential information and case records, and store and access information about clients. The group developed model standards addressing the following key concepts: practitioner competence; informed consent; privacy and confidentiality; boundaries, dual relationships, and conflicts of interest; records and documentation; collegial relationships; and social work practice across jurisdictional boundaries. These model standards, formally adopted in 2015, are now influencing the development of licensing and regulatory laws around the world.
Following this development, in 2017, with unprecedented collaboration among key social work organizations in the United States—NASW, Council on Social Work Education, ASWB, and Clinical Social Work Association—the profession formally adopted new comprehensive practice standards focused on social workers' and social work educators' use of technology. Approved by these respective organizations' boards of directors, these transformational comprehensive standards address a wide range of compelling issues related to social workers' use of technology to provide information to the public; design and deliver services; gather, manage, and store information; and educate social workers. These new standards constitute a sea change in social work practice, administration, and education.
And, most recently, social work has adopted an updated NASW Code of Ethics that incorporates 19 new (and some revised) technology-related standards. The process started in 2015, when NASW appointed a task force to determine whether changes were needed in its Code of Ethics to address concerns related to social workers' and clients' increased use of technology. The last major revision of the code was approved in 1996. Since 1996, there has been significant growth in the use of computers, smartphones, tablets, e-mail, texting, online social networking, monitoring devices, video technology, and other electronic technology in various aspects of social work practice. In fact, many of the technologies currently used by social workers and clients did not exist in 1996. In August, 2017, NASW adopted a revised code that now includes extensive technology-related additions pertaining to informed consent, competent practice, conflicts of interest, privacy and confidentiality, sexual relationships, sexual harassment, interruption of services, unethical conduct of colleagues, supervision and consultation, education and training, client records, and evaluation and research.
Significant New Standards
• Encourage social workers to discuss with clients policies concerning use of technology in the provision of professional services. Clients should have a clear understanding of the ways in which social workers use technology to deliver services, communicate with clients, search for information about clients online, and store sensitive information about clients.
• Encourage social workers who plan to use technology in the provision of services to obtain client consent to the use of technology at the beginning of the professional-client relationship.
• Advise social workers who use technology to communicate with clients to assess each client's capacity to provide informed consent.
• Advise social workers to verify the identity and location of clients they serve remotely (especially in case there is an emergency and to enable social workers to comply with laws in the client's jurisdiction).
• Alert social workers to the need to assess clients' ability to access and use technology, particularly for online and remote services. They also encourage social workers to help clients identify alternate methods of service delivery if the use of technology to deliver services is not appropriate.
• Advise social workers to obtain client consent before conducting an online search for information about clients, as a way to respect clients' privacy (unless there are emergency circumstances).
• Highlight the need for social workers to understand the special communication challenges associated with electronic and remote service delivery and how to address these challenges.
• Advise social workers who use technology to comply with the laws of both the jurisdiction where the social worker is regulated and located and where the client is located (given that social workers and clients might be in different states or countries).
• Advise social workers to be aware of, assess, and respond to cultural, environmental, economic, disability, linguistic, and other social diversity issues that may affect delivery or use of services.
• Discourage social workers from communicating with clients using technology for personal or nonwork-related purposes, in order to maintain appropriate boundaries.
• Advise social workers to take reasonable steps to prevent client access to social workers' personal social networking sites and personal technology, again to avoid boundary confusion and inappropriate dual relationships.
• Suggest that social workers should be aware that posting personal information on professional websites or other media could cause boundary confusion, inappropriate dual relationships, or harm to clients.
• Remind social workers to be aware that clients may discover personal information about them based on their personal affiliations and use of social media.
• Suggest that social workers should avoid accepting requests from or engaging in personal relationships with clients on online social networks or other electronic media.
• Advise social workers to take reasonable steps (such as use of encryption, firewalls, and secure passwords) to protect the confidentiality of electronic communications, including information provided to clients or third parties.
• Advise social workers to develop and disclose policies and procedures for notifying clients of any breach of confidential information in a timely manner.
• Advise social workers to inform clients of unauthorized access to the social worker's electronic communication or storage systems (e.g., cloud storage).
• Advise social workers to develop and inform clients about their policies on the use of electronic technology to gather information about clients.
• Advise social workers to avoid posting any identifying or confidential information about clients on professional websites or other forms of social media.
• Advise social workers using technology to facilitate evaluation or research to obtain clients' informed consent for the use of such technology. They also encourage social workers to assess clients' ability to use the technology and, when appropriate, offer reasonable alternatives.
— Frederic G. Reamer, PhD, is a professor in the graduate program of the School of Social Work at Rhode Island College. He is the author of many books and articles, and his research has addressed mental health, health care, criminal justice, and professional ethics.