On an individual case advocacy level, a social worker, using Internet resources, can more easily assist clients in navigating systems of care. In addition to informational resources, social workers can assist clients by using on-line application processes and services, and providing access to support networks.
Technology has also become the backbone of agency administration. Electronic systems are essential for routine operations as well as applications designed to enhance forecasting, long-range planning, and project management. Major tasks, vital routines, ongoing communications, and agency outreach can be facilitated and enhanced through the use of databases, the Internet, and other technologies. When used appropriately, technology can help an agency accomplish its mission in a cost-effective way.
However, this great leap forward in efficiency and case management is presenting social workers with some early ethical considerations that must be addressed.
- Social workers must keep themselves informed about technology that will advance quality program operations and service delivery, invest in and maintain such systems, and establish policies to ensure access, appropriate security and privacy in agency information systems.
- It is the social worker’s responsibility to be aware of technology that may facilitate community well-being and to advocate for adoption of innovative systems when appropriate.
- It is particularly important when providing services using electronic means to document client authorization for disclosure and informed consent. Key issues such as communication guidelines (timing and length of e-mails), security mechanisms (encryption, firewalls and pass codes), and actions to ensure fair and equitable fees must be considered.
- Social workers are in a unique position to ensure that technological innovations are culturally sensitive and attuned to the characteristics and needs of the specific community. Technologies such as e-mail groups, resource-rich web sites, databases, and geographic information systems can assist practice within real and virtual communities.
- If resources are not available, the social worker should advocate for securing them. When technical support is not forthcoming, the social worker should work to see that this support is made available and that there are systems in place that will foster consistency and permanency. Social workers should strive to ensure access to technology and the benefits of technology for all members of the community.
- Access to adequate technology can be problematic for underfunded organizations, yet it is important that the appropriate use of technology be an integral part of short and long-term organizational goals. Although the costs of hardware, software, personnel, and training can be daunting, technical systems planning and maintenance should be a routine part of the regular budgeting process.
The imperatives listed above have arisen at this, the earliest stages of technological innovation in social work. As time passes, social workers will wrestle with additional concerns such as: the danger of technology replacing face-to-face client contact, the client’s ability to properly utilize technology, confidentiality on the client’s end of the technological exchange, language and cultural barriers, and limiting the social worker’s opportunity to hear the client’s concerns. Like any powerful tool, technology in social work practice must be handled with great care.
Good Practice | Ethics | Law
A THORNY ISSUE
The ethical standards in many areas of social work are still being worked through the legal system. A particularly compelling example of evolving standards concerns social workers’ response to parents’ request to examine their children’s counseling records. At the beginning of the social worker-client relationship, social workers routinely discuss with minor clients and their parents the minors’ right to confidentiality and possible exceptions. Nonetheless, in many cases social workers encounter ethical challenges when parents ask to examine their child’s records because of their curiosity or because of their relevance to legal disputes.