Digital Adult Social Care

A digital turn in adult social care

Published: 23/02/2021

Author: Dr Amanda M L Taylor-Beswick

Has digital become part of adult social care’s ‘new normal’? The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has meant that ‘traditional’ face-to-face social care practices have had to fundamentally change, leading to the rapid acceleration of digitised social care.

The current pandemic has unraveled the fabric of the social world. Daily routines, familiar rituals and sociality have been upended due to the measures put in place to contain and manage the spread of the coronavirus. Terms such as ‘lockdown’, ‘shielding’, ‘face covering’, ‘social distance’, ‘death toll’ and ‘new normal’ have become woven into narratives and everyday life.

Effective and meaningful social care practice has historically relied on close physical proximity to people, with practice often necessary within the context of the home environment. Therefore the ongoing imposed physical distancing measures have presented a significant challenge for practices that would ordinarily take the form of face-to-face or in-person contact. It is this challenge that has accelerated the move in adult social care towards mediated methods, to deliver services and to maintain practice continuity through the use of new technologies and digital platforms as communities continue in ‘lockdown’, or individuals shielding due to their own care and support needs.

Digital technology can function as an important ‘enabler’ in order to achieve the core objectives of adult social care, such as in relation to inclusion, co-production, self-determination, and safeguarding. But, it can also present ethical and practice challenges and lead to uncertainty in practice.

The digital technology in adult social care online seminars will reflect on pre-pandemic and pandemic digital social care, as well as post-pandemic digital social care developments – what might these bring as adult social care continues to respond to a dynamic and evolving situation? What digital developments will we ‘keep’ as a social care profession, and what will we leave behind, as we move towards a ‘post-pandemic’ future?

Digital and social care’s ‘new normal’

During the seminar on digital technology in adult social care, attendees will be invited to reflect on the ethical, moral and practice considerations of digital technologies in adult social care. This will entail exploring together how the risks and uncertainties of working online might be negotiated, as well as building skills, understanding and confidence around what constitutes ethical practice when ‘doing’ digital social care.

The digital technology in adult social care online seminar will acknowledge the rapid digital acceleration that has taken place in adult social care during the last 11 months, and pay attention to how the pandemic has driven social care into digital spaces and practices in ways that would have previously been considered inappropriate or ineffective in terms of the nature of ‘social’ type work.

The seminar will also explore the challenges and opportunities of technologies and online or virtual practice (LaMendola, 2010), with reference to Rafferty’s (1998) analogy of social work as 'the tortoise’, and technology as ‘the hare' (p.11), in order to illustrate the complex history of technology use in social work.

The challenges of access and inclusion in a ‘digital by default’ world

The COVID-19 outbreak has exposed and intensified the scale of the UK’s digital divide as 1.9 million households have no access to the internet, 25.9 million rely on expensive pay-as-you-go data services (ONS, 2019) and a significant proportion of older adults have never used the internet. The increased use of digitised social work has therefore advanced sector concerns regarding the lack of digital access, and addressing this issue represents one of most significant challenges facing the adult social care sector.  The issue of digital inclusion occurs in tandem with widespread socio-economic inequalities, poverty and a lack of infrastructure and under-resourcing, with already minoritised groups of adults, such as those from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups, disproportionately affected.

The present moment offers a unique opportunity to seek out new ways to address these complex and intersecting issues, as we determine what practice developments to retain as a social care profession, and what to abandon, as everyone moves towards a post-pandemic future.  In doing so, we will put digital in perspective during the digital technology in adult social care online seminar, exploring the tendency towards ‘digital by default’ (Government Digital Strategy, 2013), and taking into account the very real risk of ‘automation complacency’ (Parasuraman and Manzey, 2010, p.382) if digital is done ‘to’ and not ‘with’ the involvement of practitioners working in adult social care.

These online seminars will draw upon the BASW professional capabilities framework as a tool to address the ethical challenges currently facing practitioners in the context of virtual practice. The real opportunities associated with inclusive digital technology use will also be considered, including as an important resource to meet the needs, and acknowledge the strengths of, the diverse range of adults supported by adult social care.

Amanda Taylor Beswick (1)

Dr Amanda M L Taylor-Beswick

Dr Amanda M L Taylor-Beswick is a social work academic at Queen’s University Belfast, within the School of Social Sciences, Education, & Social Work. Her interests and research focuses on the digitalisation of the social world and social work’s response to this. Recent projects include: ‘An examination of the contribution of social work education to the preparedness of students for practice in the connected age’ and Academic Advisor to a project investigating ‘The Digital Capabilities of Social Workers in England’ in order to improve digital knowledge, values and skills in social work practice.