• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Friday 22nd August, 2008

Putting better science into the art of social work

Physicians are generally more highly regarded and better paid than social workers, but in some respects medical practice is easier than social work. Doctors can draw on a wealth of research data to determine what treatments work best for which illnesses; social workers, by contrast, have a very small body of evidence to help them make decisions. One reason for the difference between the two knowledge bases is that it’s pretty easy to test a new drug (or other type of therapy). All you have to do is to recruit patients suffering from an illness and administer the drug to half, chosen at random. Then you compare their progress to the progress of those who received other drugs or no drugs at all. Increasingly interventions are being subjected to the equivalent of medical testing, but social work practice is only just beginning to be seen as being part of a professional delivery system.Social work practice is clearly a much more complex matter than merely administering medication. Social workers usually make a lengthy series of decisions: some based on research evidence, others on personal experience and conventional wisdom. Moreover, the uncertainties in many of their clients’ lives also affect a particular problem. Identifying the key decisions or conditions that lead to good outcomes for clients can be daunting for any researcher.A group of Israeli, Italian, Swedish, and English researchers mused on these difficulties in a recent article in the European Journal of Social Work. Given the challenges of producing evidence, the research group, which includes June Thoburn of the UK University of East Anglia, suggests that it might be more accurate to speak of “knowledge-based” practice than of “evidence-based” practice. While the latter is based solely on rigorous research, the former can involve clients’ perspectives and social workers' experiences of what has worked in the past. Thoburn and company also stress the importance of social workers carefully documenting their actions and decisions to build a strong knowledge base of what works under what conditions. They also outline the range and complexity of variables that researchers should consider when evaluating social work methods. The medical researcher needs to know only who has taken a certain drug and who has not. By contrast the social work researcher must take into account all the decisions made by social workers, the circumstances and needs of the clients and the skills or techniques that social workers employ. Social work may remain, at least in part, an art, but the authors of this article argue that there are ways to acknowledge the art and at the same time boost the power of the practice with better science.• Summary of “Evidence-based social work practice with children and families: a cross national perspective” by A. Zeira, C. Canali, T. Vecchiato, U. Jergeby, J. Thoburn, and E. Neve in European Journal of Social Work, Volume 11, Issue 1, March 2008, pp 57–72.

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