Social Workers Must Be at the Table

Elizabeth J. Clark, Ph.D., ACSW, MPHAs we adjust to a new administration on Capitol Hill, we also need to learn new vocabulary. We may not fully understand TARP, but we now recognize the acronym and know it is linked to the word “bailout.” Almost daily we read about the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) but we have difficulty grasping the amount of money it represents, much less how it will be spent. We also hear old phrases with new meanings like stress tests — for banks, not people — and the National Institutes of Health is using the phrase “GO grants” to designate a new funding stream called “grand opportunities.” These grants will provide short-term funding for large-scale research projects to jumpstart both high-impact ideas and the economy.

One new acronym — CER — will have particular relevance for the practice of social work. CER stands for Comparative Effectiveness Research that will compare treatments and strategies to improve health and to help both clinicians and patients decide on best treatments. Further goals are to improve the health of communities and the performance of the health system. To see a fuller discussion of CER and to read about social work exemplars in this area, please visit the Web site of the Institute for the Advancement of Social Work Research at

Some of you reading this column will wonder what the topic has to do with you. You’re a practitioner, not a researcher. You may be thinking because you work in an agency or a private practice or a service delivery area or do advocacy that you will be under the CER radar screen. Chances are, you will not. Your agency or your program will have to be able to document positive differences in long-term outcomes that are as good as — or better than — the agency across the street, across town, or across the country. Doing good work may no longer be good enough to ensure continued funding, particularly under the umbrella of health care reform.

Does this mean that you must personally conduct clinical research? Not necessarily. But social workers must be at the table from proposal development to data analysis. Who better to help form the questions and topics to be researched than social workers on the front lines of service delivery? Who else will ensure that research studies and delivery strategies include underserved and marginalized populations and account for cultural differences? If social workers aren’t present, who will emphasize that the quality of caring is just as important as the cost of the care provided?

Whether focusing on health or behavioral health care; on prevention, intervention, follow-up or adherence; on individual change or community outcomes, social workers are essential to the process and to the planning. The words of former NASW President Whitney M. Young, Jr., are just as relevant today as they were when our country was undergoing another period of major social change in the 1960s.

“There is a lot to tell the public,” Young said. “The important thing now is that we can begin saying something as persistently as we can. The media and the government, regardless of their reasons, cannot continue to disregard the findings of current research and the knowledge of thousands of social workers who know as much or more than the so-called experts on the social problems draining the spirit and resources of our nation.”