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Embracing technology in a people-centred profession

ACWA Inc - Monday, April 11, 2016
Community work, at heart, is about people. The resilience of the community work profession amongst increasing numbers of automated jobs is that technology can never replace the work of a counsellor, child protection practitioner or support worker. That said, technology can be used to enhance our practice and efficiency as well as increase the accessibility of existing services.

Websites and online search directories are used to great success in helping providers engage with clients and connect them with relevant services. User friendly and easy to keep up to date, most practitioners will already be well aware (and their workplaces listed) of the directories specific to their service area.

The most useful sites are mobile compatible and have a profound reach and relevance in the community services sector. The interactive website Ask Izzy, for example, is a standout - perhaps not surprising as it was created in part from a Google grant. The site allows people experiencing homelessness, almost 80% of whom own a smartphone, to search more than 350,000 services across Australia. Searches can be made in categories such as housing, facilities, financial assistance, and counselling to name a few thus extending the ability of providers to reach those in need.

The mental health sector has been an early adopter of technology making full use of its potential. E-mental health is a relatively new term to describe a range of electronically available programs, tools and resources that help support people with mental health issues. E-mental health services tend to focus on screening or assessment programs such as MindSpot or programs such as the Black Dog Institute’s MyCompass to manage mild anxiety and mental well-being issues. Some sites such as The Brave Program are specifically designed for children and adolescents. More advanced services also offer online chat functions with trained professionals.

These programs have several advantages. Like telephone based services they can help to overcome the barrier to seeking help that comes from a reluctance to approach  face to face alternatives; they also help remove the barrier of distance for people in rural and remote locations who may not have access to mental health services in their community. Research has also shown that online therapy for conditions like anxiety and stress can, under certain conditions, be as effective as face-to-face intervention. In fact an e-mental health strategy has been developed by the Commonwealth Government to ensure that accessible, high-quality e-mental health is integrated into the mental health sector.

Clearly not all services are resourced to operate 24 hours a day so sharing tools to assist consumers is crucial. Apps are particularly suited to this purpose because, once downloaded, they can be stored on a mobile or tablet and accessed at the touch of a button. Apps are particularly useful for keeping track and measuring change over time and once again, as with the other forms of electronic support, the mental health sector has got on board enthusiastically. ReachOut WorryTime and ReachOut Breathe are both free apps designed to help people manage the psychological and physical symptoms of stress and anxiety. There are also some generic apps out there that community workers can share with their clients. Health information, medication reminders, budgeting aides and goal setting can all be managed and monitored through existing apps some of which come pre-installed on newer phones, like Apple’s Health app.

As well as resources to engage with new clients and support existing ones, technology can also be used to make practice more efficient and effective. Community work rarely takes place in isolation which makes inter-agency and professional collaboration a critical. Patchwork is a secure online tool designed to make this process smoother. It allows frontline workers to share their contact details with other practitioners who are working with the same client so that services are coordinated. It does not include case management details, but allows workers to see a ‘visible network’ around the client. Risk to clients is reduced when workers understand who does what and where the gaps in service provision might be.

Similarly, project and program evaluation, and outcome measurement is a far easier exercise thanks to new web-based systems. Infoxchange, for example, hosts QIPPS one of the web-based project management and evaluation templates available for service providers. The Department of Health in the Northern Territory has taken advantage of the system which has the added benefit of providing cross-project reports for a broader picture of an organisation’s activities.

While the advantages of using technology are self-evident in an increasing tech-focused world, there are of course some concerns that need addressing. Privacy, consent and information security issues with technology exist at large, however, they are particularly important in the community sector where clients may already be vulnerable and at risk of exploitation. Clients, users and practitioners alike should know what information is being collected and how it is to be used. And it goes without saying that any database or management system should also be secure and password restricted. Recommending online systems should also come with a disclaimer that sometimes it is just better to find a qualified person to talk to.

For community workers technology can enhance their work and provide new opportunities to reach and support people outside typical practice. It can also support collaboration between agencies and professionals and simplify the outcome measurement process. Community work is a people-centred profession and technology can never replace a well-qualified, experienced and empathic practitioner, but as long as it is used ethically and wisely it can enhance practice and the experience for consumers. Given technology is now ubiquitous, and we have a tech savvy younger generation, it makes sense to use it for the good of clients and communities.

Want more?

For more apps that can help promote mental wellbeing for young people, head to ReachOut and browse The Toolbox.

ReachOut also has free online professional development modules centred around using technology in practice. They can be accessed here.

eMHPrac provides health practitioners and community workers with free training and support centred around using e-mental health. Learn more here.
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