Social Work

Is Virtual Social Work Possible?

Is Virtual Social Work Possible?
The COVID pandemic accelerated the advance of virtual social work but it didn't initiate it. Even before the coronavirus isolated all of us, many social work practitioners were transitioning their practices to online and digital delivery. Image from Pexels
Maya Rose Levine profile
Maya Rose Levine July 7, 2022

The COVID pandemic accelerated an already-emerging trend: virtual social work via online media. Can social workers effectively incorporate virtual treatment into their practice?

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Many healthcare professionals, including social workers, labor under the misconception that their jobs are not conducive to virtual work. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth; since the start of the pandemic, virtual opportunities for social workers to engage and assist children and families have arisen across numerous scenarios.

That's good news for social workers, because virtual work facilitates convenience and flexibility. It also promotes workplace satisfaction; according to Forbes, seven in ten millennials report that remote work alleviates stress, improves morale, and yields savings on commuting, clothes, and dry cleaning.

How do clients feel about virtual social work? Are there downsides to virtual social work? In short, is virtual social work possible? Are virtual interventions effective? This article explores these questions while also addressing:

  • The definition of virtual social work
  • Examples of effective virtual social work
  • Challenges of providing virtual social work
  • The case for and against virtual social work
  • How will a Master of Social Work prepare me for virtual social work?

Is virtual social work possible?

The COVID pandemic accelerated the advance of virtual social work but it didn't initiate it. Even before the coronavirus isolated all of us, many social work practitioners were transitioning their practices to online and digital delivery.

From virtual school social worker services to less invasive remote home visits, the social work community continues to innovate and technologically advance its ability to provide individuals, hospital, schools, and the elderly remote support.

Definition of virtual social work

Because virtual social work is new and developing, the field has not yet formulated an agreed-upon definition of the practice. Some facets, however, are certain. Any and all remote client services—usually delivered over a technological platform—can be considered virtual social work. That could include anything from a hospice social worker providing telehealth to a patient via FaceTime to a clinical therapist hopping on a Zoom call with patient.

Virtual social work makes possible improved service to underserved and rural populations. Everything from client advocacy and support to one-on-one counseling can transpire online, broadening service opportunities while saving valuable time and travel expenses. Likewise, clients with severe disabilities can benefit from remote services that obviate their need to travel. In times of a health crisis like the COVID pandemic, virtual social work enables service to continue even as the population self-isolates.

Examples of effective virtual social work

A trial documented in Frontiers in Psychiatry Journal surveyed primary care patients to determine their satisfaction with virtual care. The survey asked patients—all of whom lived in remote or otherwise hard-to-service locations—to rate their experience using mobile devices to connect with a social worker (on a one-to-five scale, with one meaning "worst" and five meaning "best"). The survey further asked patients to identify their favorite and least aspects of the experience. Patients scored their experience a 4.7 out of 5, reporting they "would recommend it" and observing "it's right there. No waiting for an appointment… great way to take advantage of technology." Noted one social worker: "“I truly do not think the patient would have come in to see a social worker otherwise."

Virtual social work is not reserved for clinical social work. VocoVision launched virtual school social worker services which, through teleconferencing technology, allow social work providers to meet with students to identify a student's educational need, create behavioral health goals, respond to crisis situations, and monitor student progress. Through teleconferencing technology, social workers are able not only to work with students but also to maintain constant communication with teachers, school staff, and parents. Virtual school social work services help mitigate staffing issues, support students in their continuing education goals, and deliver much-needed access to competent and efficient care.

Challenges of providing virtual social work

Virtual social work practice is not without its challenges. Within the family services arena, social workers frequently require close physical, emotional, and cognitive contact with children to accurately gauge their home safety and overall needs.

A 2020 study reported that social workers find it difficult to read a child's body language and small social cues via teletherapy. Likewise, they could not always identify clients' physical disabilities. Maintaining confidentiality posed yet another challenge. One social worker explained how a parent had become "distraught" when her child was asked to speak on her traumatic experiences over a Skype platform. Then there were economic-based challenges, such as clients' lack of adequate technological equipment to facilitate virtual treatment.

The case for and against virtual social work

As virtual social services expand and garner more attention, social workers will face increased demands to apply creativity and improvisation to the remote service environment. Remote service is likely here to stay; its potential to dramatically increase services to hard-to-reach clients virtually assures that. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) has not only embraced virtual social work but has also implemented virtual webinars for students across the country. NASW's spring 2022 newsletter highlights the benefits of remote social work and remote MSW education.

Some naysayers argue that virtual social work blurs the ethics surrounding case management and client care services. Fredric Reaper, a professor in the graduate program of the School of Social Work at Rhode Island College, argues that there is a simple fix to this: continual training on best practices in delivering remote services. As more individuals pursue a path in social work and collaborate to give the best and most ethical remote support, the benefits of virtual social work will far outweigh the challenges that accompany this undeniable progress.

How will a Master of Social Work prepare me for virtual social work?

Intrigued by the prospect of virtual social work? A Master of Social Work can prep you for many career options conducive to remote practice. You'll learn advanced concepts in social work opportunities in medicine, mental health, substance abuse, children and family health, and more. You'll earn the credentials required for clinical practice in the process. You do not need a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree to pursue an MSW (although a BSW should qualify you for an accelerated program).

Online programs offered at schools like Tulane University School of Social Work and Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work provide the opportunity to pursue your passion for social work education from the comfort of your own home. By gaining your MSW remotely, you will increase your comfort with a work-from-home environment and strengthen the technological skills needed to pursue virtual social work. Your MSW—whether earned in a traditional program or online—includes requisite fieldwork and qualifies you to become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) with the opportunity to make a real impact. MSW programs prepare you for all social work situations—including the emerging field of virtual practice.

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