How Social Workers are Using Technology and Data-Sharing to Improve Public Health
More than any other profession, social workers have long been aware that a person’s wellbeing is affected by everything from their access to transportation to financial wellness to their physical and mental health. Now, social workers are embracing data-sharing and technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve public health. Social work programs across the U.S. are embracing technology and harnessing the power of data to better manage the future of their school and prepare their students for the future.
What does data-sharing have to do with public health?
The need for skilled social workers isn’t disappearing anytime soon. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that over the next decade, the number of social work jobs will grow by 11%. At the same time, technologies and resources like big data and artificial intelligence are also growing in capabilities. These tools can help link previously separate spheres (like transportation access and mental health histories) to better understand correlations between health information and socioeconomics and demographics. Social work programs need to help set their students up for success in this data-heavy future by embracing technology today so their alumni can help more efficiently and effectively heal people in the future.
When data is sharable, knowledge becomes more accurate. For example, electronic health records and public health databases are enormous depositories of data that should be leveraged to provide better treatment for more successful outcomes. Combining sets like these can result in a myriad of public health benefits including:
- Increased cross-sector collaboration and solution building.
- Broader sample sizes for more accurate findings.
- Faster data collection and identification of opportunities for intervention.
- Faster deployment of solutions and industry best practices so communities aren’t left behind.
- A more complete picture of the state of the nation’s health as well as smaller communities within it.
However, understanding the benefits of data-sharing does not mean it is easy to do so. Currently social work graduates enter a field filled with outdated systems, complex laws, and resistance to change. They need to be aware of the challenges they face so they can help change it and build a more collaborative industry that affects large-scale change like never before.
Barriers to Data-Sharing
Recently The State of Data Sharing at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was released. It examined how the government can share data to more efficiently create value to help entrepreneurs, researchers and more and “use data to generate new products and services, build businesses, and create jobs.”
These findings echo many of the same obstacles social work programs experience when building core processes and laying a foundation for a successful, data-centric business and shed light on how these barriers might be overcome. Programs need to help their students understand the importance of data-sharing and what obstacles currently exist.
Challenge #1: Siloed Data Centers
Challenge #2: Outdated Technology
Challenge #3: Compliance and Resource Constraints
How social work programs can embrace technology and prepare students for their careers.
Academic programs are already prepping for this technology-laden future. The Columbia School of Social Work just launched a new minor for their social work students: Emerging Technology, Media, and Society. The tech portion of this degree will “provide the social, conceptual, and technical fluency necessary to explore applications of artificial intelligence (e.g. machine learning, natural language processing) and other emergent technologies (e.g. virtual reality) to complex social issues.”
Schools don’t need to implement a whole new degree to start introducing more digital skills. Simple steps like examining your statistics classes and ensuring they’re using real-world case studies can help introduce students to what they’ll experience in their career. Even tools like time-tracking software is habit-forming so that when students have to enter their billable time, they’ll be used to the steps and have practiced on a similar interface.
Readying your students for the future doesn’t need to be overwhelming. Software tools and services exist that can help introduce programs and students alike to new skills. One of the best first steps programs can take is by adding an program management software to their digital toolbelt. Software like this automatically helps schools keep track of their data. For example, field placement software helps programs keep track of what field sites are performing as expected as well as helps faculty members communicate with students. All of these data points add up to a powerful resource that schools can use to simplify accreditation, more accurately plan for the future of their programs, and help train students on technology similar to what they’ll use in their careers.