Advancing evidence-informed practice

Angleo McClain, Ph.D, LICSWAs I reflect on the 2016 Social Work Month theme, “Forging Solutions out of Challenges,” I understand that — along with being a long-held hallmark of social work — turning challenges into solutions calls for strengthening the scientific basis of practice.

In January, I attended the Society of Social Work Research’s 20th annual conference. Throughout the conference, I kept coming back to the following thought, “How can we create new paradigms for better delivery and dissemination of social work scientific advances?” A consistent theme in several sessions centered on how to engage practitioners to incorporate the latest research findings.

As a profession, we need to better understand the factors inhibiting and encouraging the process of taking research into the field.

Perhaps a multidimensional, profession-wide infrastructure focused on the integration of social work knowledge into practice for improved service delivery and better client outcomes would accelerate the application of the research findings process.

Historically, the origins of social work stressed objective investigation and strong scientific emphasis for the principles and approaches of practice, grounding practice on knowledge derived from the social and biological sciences. From its inception, social work practice has been based on the best scientific knowledge available, using a combination of research evidence, professional knowledge and expertise, and client and community values.

Today, we all have responsibility for advancing evidence-informed practice so that social and biological sciences form the essential base for practice. Evidence-informed practice is a pragmatic, dynamic and fluid process whereby practitioners continually seek, interpret, use and evaluate the best available information in an effort to make the best practice decisions. Deriving evidence from many sources —from systematic reviews and meta-analyses to less rigorous research designs — allows the practitioner to improve practice at all levels.

Evidence-informed practitioners adopt a process of continuous learning that involves regularly posing questions of direct practical importance to client outcomes and engaging in a search for the best available evidence.

The process involves questioning and assessing the way practice is done and seeking additional research, information, resources and interventions to guide and improve practice.

The social work profession boasts outstanding researchers who have advanced the frontiers of science and social work, developing the theoretical and scientific underpinnings of social and behavioral phenomena. For the last century, social work researchers have anticipated and pioneered social service technologies for use in furthering health and human services and achieving social reform goals.

Practitioners and agency administrators need opportunities to play vital roles not only in translating research into practice, but also in shaping scientific inquiry. Practitioners and agency administrators are best positioned to inform the concrete steps necessary to implement procedures at the individual and organizational levels for incorporating evidence into practice.

Practitioners understand the professional knowledge, skills and abilities that are needed for improved practice. Agency administrators understand organizational and systemic needs and how to justify the feasibility and costs of incorporating research findings.

In addition to improving practice, social work knowledge is used to explain and justify policy decisions, strengthen demands for funding, inform decisions between different approaches for addressing health and human service challenges, and raise awareness about social conditions.

Increasingly, funders look for return on investment as part of the cost/benefit analysis and expect to establish a firm “business case” for projects. Given the vast sums of money, it is only right that funders get return on investment in terms of improved outcomes and performance.

Consider this recent headline: “Medicare to test if seamless social work can improve health.” The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services launched “Accountable Health Communities” — a five-year, $157 million grant program for as many as 44 organizations that will link patients with social services. If it shows promise, it could be expanded nationwide.

The program will test the impact of “social determinants of health” on health. The grant awardees will serve as a bridge between health providers and social services, addressing issues such as housing, transportation, domestic violence, food insecurity, and systems navigation. The grants will be awarded this fall, and the program is expected to commence early next year.

We must recognize that challenges represent opportunities not only for improving practice and client outcomes, but also for providing proof that social work solutions can effectively address our biggest social problems.

Contact Angelo McClain at