Good Practice: Portable IT systems for children’s assessments

Gateshead social workers have been pioneering mobile IT systems using tablet PCs, reports Molly Garboden



Gateshead Council information systems manager Keith Andrews with social worker Julie Thirkle and her tablet PC. Thirkle says using the tablet is similar to using pen and paper

Gateshead social workers have been pioneering mobile IT systems using tablet PCs, reports Molly Garboden


Project name: CareMobile, a mobile IT system that allows social workers to complete assessments and fill in integrated children’s system forms on the move.

Objectives: To streamline the recording and assessment process for children’s social workers.

Location: Gateshead.

Cost: From £18 per device per month.

Outcomes: Greater flexibility, improved productivity and inter-agency working, better quality data and case recording.

Number of users: The system has been rolled out to all children’s social workers in Gateshead.

Social workers in Gateshead have solved the conundrum of spending more time with families and less time chained to a computer. The solution is to take the computer with them to visit families.

Every children’s social worker in the council has been issued with a mobile IT system on tablet PCs (similar to iPads). These allow social workers to complete assessments while they are visiting clients. The programme also contains the integrated children’s system (ICS), which social workers can fill out on their tablets and upload onto their office systems later, removing the need to re-enter data. The programme, from OLM Systems, is called CareMobile.

Assessments are carried out on the tablet in the same way they would be done on a desktop computer, but being able to do it while talking to the family significantly cuts down the time the process takes.

The assessments can then be uploaded straight onto a desktop computer but the reverse can be done as well, so social workers can load information about a family from their desktop machine, onto their tablet PCs before going out on a visit.

Julie Thirkle, a social worker with Gateshead’s disabled children’s team, says she and other social workers in her team, have found the system helpful.

“It definitely frees me up because I don’t have to be in and out of the office just to record things. I’ve started using it for other things too. The tablet PCs have Microsoft Word on them so I’ve started using it to take notes in team meetings. That way all my work material is in one place that I can carry with me all the time.”

She says that so far both she and her team, even those not technologically inclined, have found it easy to use.

“The training isn’t too onerous because it’s a very simple programme. Of course it varies from worker to worker, but most in Gateshead have picked it up very quickly.”

She says she has found very little difference between using the tablet PC and a pen and paper because the tablet has a handwriting recognition programme within it. Social workers can scribble down their notes using a specialised pointer and the programme translates them into computer text.

“The handwriting recognition programme is marvellous, but it does take some time to get used to your particular style. For the first few days you do get some errors. But after that the programme adjusts and starts to recognise your letters.”

Thirkle says one doubt social workers had about the system was how service users would react when a professional used it in their presence. She says some users had taken a dim view of this.

“You have to be sensible about where and when you use it,” she says. “Some people don’t respond well to forms being filled out about them, much less on a very official looking piece of equipment. Another problem is that the battery life is only about one hour and assessment sessions can last up to five hours. I once had to be really cheeky and ask a family if I could plug my tablet in because the battery died, but of course in certain situations you wouldn’t be able to do that.”

Keith Andrews, information systems manager at the council, says social workers need to assess a family’s situation and judge how they might respond to use of the tablet PC.

“In benign situations, it’s actually a very good idea to use the tablet to fill out an assessment in front of the family. It’s a way to make the family feel involved and get them on board with what’s happening.”

But he warns: “In more intense situations such as visits triggered by concerns about child protection, the environment might be too highly pressured or hostile to take out your tablet and get people involved.”

Social workers also have to be careful about data protection and Andrews says a significant part of the training is around these protocols. “Everybody who goes through the training has a specific course on data protection. We also issue a guidance document about what to do in the office and out in the field.”

He says data is also made safe by the fact that the tablet PCs have no connection or access to the internet. This means nothing can be hacked into or accidentally leaked. He says social workers are also given encrypted memory sticks, which add another level of security.

But ultimately, keeping the information safe comes down to social workers’ good judgement.

“When it comes to keeping things confidential, it’s really no different from using a pen and paper,” says Thirkle. “You need to use your judgement about what’s a secure environment and you have to make sure no one around you can see what you’re writing, whether you’re in a family home, your car, or a café.”

The project has been so successful with children’s services in Gateshead that Andrews says there are plans for a further roll-out into adults’ services.

OLM Systems is also thinking ahead and are talking about an “app store”-style way of marketing the system. Local authorities would be able to pick and choose only those aspects of the programme they require. For instance, the ICS capability would not be needed by adult care social workers. Councils would be able to select modular applications such as financial assessments, case record and children’s assessments.

“They are individual pieces of functionality that councils would be able to purchase in the same way you can purchase apps on your iPhone,” says Andrews. “It means the programme is more cost-effective because local authorities would be able to pick and choose only what they need or can afford.”

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