Why do we write things down? In healthcare, social work and other professions involving practitioner-client relationships, there are many answers to this question. First, it’s important that every member of a client’s team understands the interventions that have already been applied. Second, if the client or patient is discharged to another facility, they can bring their record with them to help their newly expanded team provided more targeted care. We also document treatments to show regulating bodies that the care being provided falls within legal standards.

Improving communication between multiple providers and facilities is important for treatment success, but it’s not the only reason that social workers document their findings. By sharing their experiences in the form of research findings, social scientists can help the entire discipline. This is known as “evidence-based” social work.

What Are the Steps of Evidence-Based Social Work?

Evidence-based practice in social work refers to the use of research-verified methods by a social worker to create or enhance a treatment plan. Just like legal and medical professionals, social workers have access to a growing knowledge base of research findings that they can draw from to enhance their treatments. Simply having access to research databases, however, doesn’t guarantee effectiveness – an important process must come first. So, what are the steps of evidence-based social work? Here is a simplified breakdown:

Identify the problem – It may sound like “common sense,” but experienced social workers will understand the importance of digging beneath the surface to identify the root cause of problem behavior. Treating a client with an evidence-based protocol for alcohol abuse, for example, won’t necessarily help if the abuse is a side-effect of anxiety, or a self-esteem issue, or another cause that should be directly addressed.

Access the evidence – Once a social worker has identified the cause of the problem behavior, they need to find the appropriate evidence. It may seem easy at first, but accessing research databases is a much more involved process than the search engines most of us are used to. Research is a discipline in its own, and social workers need to understand how to structure their queries, find and review summaries, and weigh the effectiveness of similar studies against each other.

Compare the context – This is arguably the most important step in the evidence-based social work domain, because it can make or break the intervention’s effectiveness. The concept is simple: compare your client’s situation to that of the research participants in the study you’re using and adjust accordingly. If research participants were found to respond positively to a certain intervention, for example, but they were given the intervention multiple times a day in an inpatient facility, that can affect results for your outpatient client. The circumstances don’t have to match perfectly, but the social worker must be conscious of each circumstantial difference and adjust them to model the study whenever appropriate.

Apply the intervention – Finally, when the evidence has been pored over and analyzed, and the social worker has adapted the evidence-based strategy to fit their client’s particular context, it’s time to apply the intervention. Social workers using evidence-based practice (EBP) should consider themselves as researchers expanding the original finding. The more thoroughly they report their results, the more insight they can add to the knowledge base. Furthermore, keeping a clear record of the results will help that social worker to create their own evidence-based resource pool. (Note: review boards and publishers require certain standards to be met in order for records to be considered EBP.)

Pros and Cons of Evidence-Based Practice in Social Work

Now that we’ve reviewed why it is important to use evidence-based social work and how, it’s important to note that EBP isn’t the best answer for every situation. The benefits outweigh the disadvantages, but only when the circumstances are appropriate. To better define those circumstances, we’ve made a pros and cons of evidence-based practice in social work list.

Pros

  • EBP gives social workers new tools and techniques to use
  • Using EBP models increases likelihood of receiving grants in many cases
  • Evidence-based practice models are often easier to implement because of all of the supporting material
  • Research can help social workers choose between multiple interventions
  • Documenting use of evidence-based social work helps to advance effective treatment options

Cons

  • Research findings can be flawed
  • Multiple studies on the same issue may disagree
  • Your situation may not be represented in the research
  • You may not have access to the equipment/methods from the finding(s)
  • Interventions applied in the study may conflict with ethical guidelines governing your practice/region.

Example of Evidence-Based Practice in Social Work

Considering this pros and cons of evidence-based practice in social work list, the best way to utilize EBP is to make sure the research is verified by other studies. It’s also important to ensure that the study represents your situation, and that it can be reproduced while adhering to ethical standards. When a social worker takes these considerations, the pros will outweigh the cons.

As social workers know all too well, even a sound theory doesn’t always guarantee success in the real world. To that end, we’ve listed the following examples of evidence-based practice in social work to give you some real-life context.

Substance Abuse: The Washington.edu library has an EBP database centered on substance abuse protocols. Social workers, addiction counselors, psychotherapists and other professionals working with clients who struggle with substance abuse can access this resource to structure their treatments.

Violent Behaviors: The Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence (CSPV) at the university of Colorado Boulder maintains a growing collection of objective studies that provide intervention programs for violent offenders. The program has focused on identifying what they call the “blueprint for violence,” and in doing so, their advisory-board-recommended programs have helped many clients to find healthier means of conflict resolution. To date, the CSPV has reviewed more than 600 violence prevention programs.

Child Welfare: The controversial topic of child welfare is defined by tough questions and ethical dilemmas. Social workers in this specialty have to make decisions that can determine the course of a child’s future, so they need objectively proven methods as much as anyone. More than just welfare programs, the Child Welfare Information Gateway provides a wealth of resources that give important insights in the areas of child abuse, adoption, welfare, and other scenarios.

As EBP databases continue to grow, more social workers in both the private and public sectors are expected to implement or at least refer to evidence-based protocols in order to improve outcomes with their clients. When used properly, examples of evidence-based practice in social work have been found to produce reliable results.

Tim Kalantjankos

B.S. Sociology | University of Nebraska at Omaha

A.S. Physical Therapy | Clarkson College

October 2019

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