In some rural, low-income areas of Florida, the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic created significant obstacles for social work. The Center for Health Equity, a nonprofit outreach program that provides social services to children and pregnant women, was dissuaded and eventually prohibited from in-person visits with clients.
To make matters even more complicated, many of those who utilize the Center for Health Equity’s services did not have access to high-speed internet and video conferencing technologies.
“We stopped going to consumers’ houses unless it’s an emergency. We are providing services over the phone,” explains social worker Candiace Williams in Issac Morgan’s FloridaPhoenix.com article, “With COVID-19 Spreading, FL Social Workers Face Limitations Trying to Help Vulnerable Families.”
The importance of maintaining social worker telehealth capabilities came into sharp focus in 2020. The pandemic forced nonprofit and for-profit corporations alike to quickly adapt to distributed workforce arrangements or perish due to shelter-in-place orders in most U.S. states.
Anyone pursuing a social worker degree online may encounter crisis scenarios, long distances, travel restrictions, and quarantines that could limit communicating as a social worker with clients in need of assistance.
Telehealth Pros and Cons
The coronavirus pandemic provided an impetus for telehealth to evolve to meet the medical, psychiatric, and therapeutic needs of a large segment of the population.
For many, counselors and therapists would not have been able to interact with their patients/clients without video conferencing technology. For others, however, telehealth presented several difficulties.
In his Psychology Today article, “Telehealth Can Help When Social Distancing Prevails,” Robert A. Lavine, Ph.D. highlights the pros and cons of telehealth:
- Talking about problems helps: Regardless of the setting, merely discussing one’s issues, worries, and feelings with another person can improve a troubled person’s mental health and even strengthen his or her immune system.
- Travel is unnecessary: Clients can attend a telehealth session from the comfort of their own home, without having to drive to a provider’s office or wait in line at a busy nonprofit facility.
- Sometimes, a simple phone call will suffice: Depending on local/state restrictions and insurance regulations, social workers and therapists can speak with their clients via a traditional audio phone call.
- Smartphones simplify telehealth: In an age of mobile devices and smart technology, smartphone apps are available that turn video conferencing sessions into a simple, intuitive, and versatile procedure.
- Distractions are more likely: At a social worker’s office, distractions are rare. Therapy offices are typically quiet, comfortable, and distraction-free. Telehealth, however, may take some getting used to. For example, children running around the house or a low battery on a video conferencing device can make a productive social work telehealth visit difficult to achieve.
- Direct eye contact is hard to avoid: Video conferencing generally involves a video feed of the person with whom one is speaking and another, a smaller feed of one’s own face. The “crowded” effect on the screen can be unsettling to some people. Many in-house therapy visits utilize “Freud’s couch,” which allows patients to recline and speak without having to face their therapist directly. Clients who are used to the couch may need to adjust to the video feed.
- Some help cannot be delivered remotely: Some emergency scenarios require in-person visits by social workers. Rape, starvation, and homelessness are just a few situations where a telehealth visit simply is not feasible.
During a pandemic or some other emergency crisis, social work clients can take some comfort in the fact that everyone is in the same boat. Telehealth makes it possible for social work to continue, even when serious barriers make face-to-face visits impossible.
Understanding the Legal Intricacies of Telehealth
Social work is subject to state regulations, restrictions, and guidelines. Insurance companies also have policies regarding telehealth. Social workers and nonprofits looking to offer telehealth assistance need to research the regulatory issues and solutions in the area where they operate.
While the COVID-19 crisis loosened many restrictions, regulations still in place directly affect the legality or coverage of telehealth. In “Considering Teletherapy? What You Need to Know BEFORE You Start,” the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Assurance Services lists several important considerations that social workers need to address before offering telehealth services:
- Check with your state/local area: Regulations vary between states and even counties. Social workers need to research restrictions that apply to their areas before offering telehealth and teletherapy. In Utah, for example, audio-only visits are not reimbursable. The NASW’s March 26, 2020 update on “COVID-19 and Utah Social Work” only allows for video/audio telehealth visits.
- Remain HIPAA compliant: The same confidentiality and security guidelines that apply to in-house visits still protect clients/patients during telehealth appointments.
- Maintain technology standards: A social worker or nonprofit may require an IT professional or department to ensure that all technology and software is used appropriately, securely, and within the confines of the law. The “NASW, ASWB, CSWE, & CSWA Standards for Technology in Social Work Practice” is available at SocialWorkers.org.
- Adhere to a code of ethics: Social work ethics are invaluable to building relationships with clients, protecting clients against abuse, and fostering a professional and helpful atmosphere between social workers and those for whom they are responsible. The NASW “Code of Ethics” is available on the NASW website.
While the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated quarantines and business lockdowns have been the driving forces behind the evolution of telehealth services, other types of crises may also call for telehealth social work services in the future.
Earthquakes, hurricanes, fires, and even future epidemics may create environments where in-person social work visits may be difficult, dangerous, or impossible. Handling clients’ needs remotely might save lives during emergencies, but social work organizations and nonprofits need to devote the time and resources necessary to deliver telehealth services safely and securely.
About Ohio University’s Online Master of Social Work
Ohio University’s online Master’s in Social Work degree program can prepare graduates for a career in social work. Social workers help vulnerable populations handle life’s challenges in areas that include marriage and family therapy, foster care counseling, crisis counseling, and human resources.
The MSW program, which is offered through the university’s College of Health Sciences and Professions, is 100% online and does not require a GRE for admission.