IT professor says paper recording better than electronic

The government’s decision to replace paper files with electronic records in social care was arbitrary and ill-informed, an academic has said.

The integrated children’s system has also failed to make best use of information technology, leaving social workers struggling to build up chronological histories of families, according to David Wastell, professor of information systems at Nottingham University Business School.

In an article for Community Care, Wastell said the “profound technological” shift in policy towards electronic case records was “seemingly driven by an article of faith, the conviction that ‘electronic is best'”.

The actual evidence used to justify the switch was scant, he added.

“No specific evidence is brought forward at any point to prove the case for electronic recording, and negative feedback has consistently been reinterpreted, dismissed or ignored throughout the ill-starred history of the ICS,” Wastell said.

The problem with electronic case recording is that it consists of “a sterile surface, devoid of natural cues to the age, size or complexity of documents, which permits no tactile contact, no possibility of physical handling, of flicking or annotation”.

Much of the material is scanned and of poor quality, and does not allow search functions, he said, while research by an academic in the US showed that reading time for electronic documents took up to 30% longer than for paper.

Wastell explained that social workers at a recent workshop bemoaned the loss of paper files. One said it “can take a whole day to get a sense of a case” on an electronic system, while another argued for a “3D experience… You need to be able to flick through and use post-it notes”.

The solution is to find more creative ways of displaying the information on the screen, he said, such as allowing the full assessment at a particular time or the long-term educational view to be shown at the touch of a button.

An expert group commissioned by the Social Work Task Force issued guidance on improving ICS in October, which contained recommendations such as including more details in family narratives attached to children’s files about the parents’ employment status and the family history.

The taskforce identified IT systems and equipment as a form of support that was vital to enable social workers to perform well in their jobs.

Was the government right to get rid of paper files in social care? Have your say on CareSpace

Read David Wastell’s blog: The tragedy of ICS: social work’s dogma-driven flight from paper records

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