Social work practice crossroad: Technological advances have pros, cons

Jan 5, 2015

By Rena Malai, News staff

If someone wakes up at 2 a.m. and can’t sleep because they’re upset about something, help may not be too far away, says Frederic Reamer, an expert in social work ethics.

Technology has made this possible, he says.

“It’s pretty much a guarantee that someone can reach out, 24/7, 365 days a week, and there will be a social worker somewhere who can help,” says Reamer, a professor at the Rhode Island College School of Social Work who gave a presentation called “The Interface of Ethics and Technology” at NASW’s national conference in July. He also spoke on the same topic at the association’s 2012 hope conference.

Reamer says there is a long list of digital and online services social workers are using, like online social networking sites, Web-based avatars, smartphone apps and text messaging. At the top are video counseling and email counseling, which he says social workers may use synchronously and asynchronously.

“Synchronous means that the client and social worker will schedule an appointment to be online at the same time, chatting online or emailing back and forth,” he says. “Asynchronous means a client can send an email to a social worker about an issue that’s troubling him or her — even at 2 a.m. — and expect a response within 24 hours.”

With more and more social workers using technology to deliver services, it’s important for them to be aware of the advantages and challenges, Reamer says.

“Social workers really need to look at individual forms of technology, how it’s being used, and the potential benefits and risks associated with it,” he says.


NASW member Celia Woolverton says there are a lot of things to be mindful of when using a technology like video therapy/counseling, which involves a client and social worker meeting through an online video platform on their own computers. Both parties will be able to see and talk to each other in real time — no matter where they are located — for the duration of the session.

Woolverton says she used to have a private practice in Nashville, Tenn., but moved to New Hampshire. Before moving, she did what any good therapist would do and offered referral services for her Nashville clients. But that didn’t really work.

“Literally 98 percent of my clientele didn’t want to be referred and didn’t want to work with someone else,” she says. “So what I offered was to video conference with them three weeks out of the month, and one week a month see them in person in Nashville. I’ve been doing this for four and a half years.”

Woolverton is licensed as a clinical social worker in New Hampshire, Tennessee and Massachusetts and treats patients from all three states in person and through video therapy. But she says social workers have to be careful from a legal standpoint if they use or want to explore using an online video option, as “telehealth” laws vary from state to state.

“If I have a patient in California, I’d need to be licensed in California to do therapy,” she says. “You have to be very careful about things like that, and be responsible.”

Reamer says it’s important to note that social workers should use online video software that is compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and that maintains the patient’s privacy.

From the January 2015 NASW News. Read the full story here.