How better information and technology can support social work

By Mark Nicholas, Strategic Account Manager, Social Care, NHS Digital

Head-shot of the author, Mark Nicholas, Strategic Account Manager, Social Care, NHS Digital

A while ago, I was listening to some social workers discussing the reality of information and technology in their day-to-day work. One of the group, an experienced AMPH, described a recent emergency admission of a very ill young man under the Mental Health Act.

After completing the admission, she went straight back to her office to upload her notes to the local authority case record system because she knew her colleagues would need the information in her assessment right away.

She doesn’t have a work laptop, just an ageing desktop computer, so it took her some time to type in the required information. She then had to run up two flights of stairs to another desktop computer and upload the same information again, this time to the hospital system.

I asked how long she spent per day inputting information in this way. She estimated about five hours. How can it make sense for vital public sector services operating under severe resource constraints to have highly skilled professionals wasting time in this way?

Unfortunately, this situation is far from unusual. NHS Digital are currently conducting research with the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE) and the market research organisation GfK to help us understand how technology can help social workers apply their skills where they make most difference. Initial findings show that, although the situation varies between local authorities, many social workers are putting up with poor quality information systems and technology.

Does it have to be like this?

What if the AMPH had a wi-fi enabled tablet connected to her workplace’s case record system? What if, when she first heard about the emergency admission, the tablet automatically downloaded some of the essential information about her service user – prescriptions, past episodes, next of kin etc. – so that she didn’t have to ask him or his family in the middle of their crisis? This would allow her to spend more time using her professional skills to determine the nature of her client’s situation and the best way of dealing with it. At the end of the assessment, she could share details with the service user and family, allowing them to correct errors and get a clearer picture of the next steps. She could upload the assessment to the case record system and expect it to immediately populate the hospital system.

This technology would save hours every day, allowing her to do more of the casework that brought her into the profession in the first place. But, here's the thing: none of this is futurology. All of it is technologically possible right now. The issue is that, to date, there has been little effort to ask social workers what they need and ensure the right technology and information gets to them.

NHS Digital’s role is the national information and technology partner to the health and social care systems and our focus is helping frontline professionals deliver better services.

We are committed to establishing a dialogue with the profession to ensure we understand what social workers’ needs are and where we can contribute. We are starting with the basics, such as being able to send an emailed document between organisations legally and securely, identifying the minimum information that everyone needs to effectively discharge somebody from hospital to social care, and developing simple ways to exchange information without adding to administration. However, we know there is more that we can do, so we are keen to hear views from local authorities and social care professionals.

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How can the social work role be supported, now and in the future, through the use of information and technology? Phase 1 findings will be launched at the National Child and Adult Services conference on 3 November 2016.

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