Work is increasingly moving from a physical world to a digital one, even in professions that have traditionally involved face-to-face interaction. Social work is one of the professions that are beginning to see a change in the way its practitioners conduct themselves and their work on the Internet.
Web-based social work degrees are beginning to emerge from prestigious universities. The Master of Social Work at USC is one such program, offering hands-on field education training in local communities, just like traditional MSW programs, but with the added flexibility of online instruction facilitated in classes where students and professors attend by web-cam. This has made earning a Master of Social Work degree online an appealing option for those unable to relocate to attend a great program.
Social workers who perform their work online are classified as using the practice of “telemedicine.” According to the American Telemedicine Association, telemedicine is defined as the exchange of medical information from one site to another by electronic communications to improve patients’ health status. Videoconferencing, the transmission of still images, and e-health services including patient portals, remote monitoring of vital signs, continuing medical education and nursing call centers are all considered part of telemedicine.
Social work performed by telemedicine benefits many clients who have special needs, or otherwise have limited access to social workers. Those living in rural areas and individuals who are serving in the military are good examples of the people who will benefit from social work provided by telemedicine. Service members stationed abroad, particularly those stationed in remote parts of the world, can receive service online from social workers. Since military social workers often work with dependants (spouses, children, etc.) the opportunities to provide counseling for families via electronic platforms, like videoconferencing, is made possible through telemedicine.
Real-time telephone and, increasingly, online therapy are some of the primary services social workers can provide online, either as a supplement to their physical counterparts or as a primary mode of counseling. These sessions can be conducted using chat sessions with an instant messenger service, structured email exchanges or via videoconferencing.
These platforms can be used for individual counseling as well as for group sessions, making it easy for a social worker to unite people with similar issues across great distances. While social work performed through telemedicine can have its limitations, the benefits are attractive and appealing to a broad range of workers and clients. Social workers need to be aware of the opportunities technology affords and make sure they have the skills needed to conduct their work, both in person and online.