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Social work on the move: how mobile working can improve care management

Mobile working Rex Image Source

In Southend, social workers are conducting assessments and uploading them onto the council’s care management system without having to enter the office. The result is significantly reduced bureaucracy.

By Mark Hunter

Despite today’s ultra-light, ultra-powerful, tablets, phablets, smartphones and netbooks, mobile technology is proving remarkably resistant to routine use on the front line of social work. Problems with software compatibility, unreliable connectivity and a reluctance to bring intimidating technology into service users’ homes have restricted the use of mobile assessments to a few trailblazing authorities.

One council that does seem to have solved the mobile conundrum is Southend-on-Sea. Over the past two years, frontline social workers and occupational therapists from Southend’s adult social services department have been issued with swivel-screen laptops that can be used to conduct self-directed support assessments from within the service user’s home. An online link to the council means that the information is fed straight into CareFirst, its care management system, where an automatic resource allocation system calculator works out a personal budget score.

Significant reduction in paperwork

The social worker can do all of this on the move, without having to travel back to the office. The result has been a significant reduction in bureaucracy and paperwork.

“It used to be that social workers would go out and fill in their assessment forms on paper, then come back into the office and use that information to update the records in CareFirst,” says project manager Kim Thompson.

“Now, we’ve put these electronic forms into CareFirst which contain all the information we need for performance. So by completing the social work report our staff are also updating CareFirst without any double entry. These days we don’t use very much paper at all.”

Unlike many local authorities who are currently revamping their self-directed support systems, Southend’s primary motivation was not to increase the number of service users with personal budgets. The council already delivers these to about 75% of its service users and carers, a figure that ranks it in the top fifth of the country, according to the Health and Social Care Information Centre. Southend’s challenge was to maintain this level of service under increasing budgetary restrictions.

Keeping staff in the field

Its response to the austerity agenda was to launch ‘Smarter Ways of Working’, an initiative designed to cut down on office space and travel costs. Flexible hours, hot-desking, home working and remote portals, where staff can plug into the council’s information systems, were all introduced in an effort to keep staff out in the field.

“You don’t have to come back into the office to upload all the data, because we don’t want you to come back into the office,” says Thompson.

Certainly the changes have impressed social care consultant Tim Parkin, who has led a project for the Think Local Act Personal partnership on improving self-directed support. Southend was one of 20 good practice case studies he has selected.

“Southend have shown that mobile working can be introduced in a way that genuinely make things easier for practitioners, supporting the implementation of self-directed support, rather than simply creating another layer of process,” he says.

Transforming the council’s paper-based system into a workable, electronic process that could operate remotely with a mobile workforce required Thompson to act as a conduit between the social workers and the computer programmers in Southend’s IT team. Technical team leader Paul Palmer says this link to the front line was essential.

Listening to practitioners

“It’s no good just understanding the IT requirements, we need to understand the practice requirements as well,” he say. “So we’ve talked to and listened to the practitioners and we’ve created a tool that is appropriate for their work and that they are happy with.”

Getting the system right involved a lot of consultation, trial and error and the road testing of various combinations of hardware and software.

“We benchmarked all the business processes and looked at the ways things were being done on paper, on screen and in the old version of CareFirst,” say Palmer. “We then looked at the various types of mobile equipment we could use, the off-the-peg software such as CareMobile, and the coverage offered by the various 3G suppliers.”

In the end the team felt that commercially available software would not provide the necessary flexibility, so Palmer put his team’s SQL computer-programming skills to the test. “Rather than buying an of-the-peg RAS calculator, we’ve developed our own version in-house using an SQL-stored procedure,” he says. “We retired a lot of paper forms – 90% are now within the Care Assess part of CareFirst – so we’ve really streamlined the process.”

‘We can be virtually anywhere’

For social services worker Rob Allen the mobile system means that he can travel from one assessment to another without having to return to the office to fill in forms or retrieve forgotten client files.

“We can be virtually anywhere in the borough and log into the system for access to up-to-date information,” he says. “With face-to-face reviews, the review is often the easy part. It’s the paperwork that takes the time because each review sheet leads to a continuing care checklist, a personal budget support form, resource requests and so on.

“The new system does all that for you and it allows you to work remotely. So I can be with a client at 2pm, back home by 3pm and straight onto the system without having to come into the civic centre.”

Kamil Pachalko, a social worker for adults in the single point of referral team, says that the increased mobility also allows a much more rapid response to emergencies.

“If there’s a safeguarding incident, for instance, I can now respond immediately even if I don’t have all the paperwork on me. I can just log into the system while I’m at the client’s house and access all the information online. So it’s better for me, but it’s also better for the client because they don’t have to wait so long for feedback.”

Lessons learned by Southend in implementing mobile working

  • Consult widely – get feedback from staff, service users and carers, before, during and after every change;
  • Shop around – Southend tried out a range of software, hardware and 3G provider combinations;
  • Do it yourself – when commercially available software didn’t offer the flexibility Southend required, they wrote their own though it helped to have a team of SQL programmers on the IT staff;
  • Communicate – Kim Thompson is a social worker with an interest in computing and acting as a conduit she was able to make sure everyone was speaking the same language;
  • Plan ahead and never underestimate how long it is going to take.

Mithran Samuel

About Mithran Samuel

Mithran Samuel is adults' editor at Community Care.

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2 Responses to Social work on the move: how mobile working can improve care management

  1. Mr Skeptical 24 September , 2013 at 10:45 am #

    “Do it yourself – when commercially available software didn’t offer the flexibility Southend required, they wrote their own though it helped to have a team of SQL programmers on the IT staff”

    So was it Carefirst or written in house? . this type of mobile working should’ve been done ten years ago and now surely they should be iphone/android apps? it annoys me to think reducing paper forms is worth talking about… come out of the dark ages!!

  2. Kevin Lancaster 26 September , 2013 at 7:20 am #

    Mr Skeptical – couldn’t agree more. No wonder Carefirst is dying out in social work, if mobile working is something to make a big deal of in 2013. What next? Spellcheck? Flared trousers?

    In what sense is this an example of good practice? It’s an example of the worst possible approach – pay a fortune for an IT system, also pay a fortune to have in-house programmers, wait 10 years after the rest of the world has been working in a mobile way and when you finally join the party, turn it into a case study and call it excellence.

    Sorry if I sound grumpy today, but this really is nonsense.