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What is evidence based practice and why do we need to use it?

Harriet Jannetta, head of operations at WillisPalmer, on why evidence based practice is essential for social workers.

The Social Work Policy Institute defines evidence-based practice as: “A process in which the practitioner combines well-researched interventions with clinical experience and ethics, and client preferences and culture to guide and inform the delivery of treatments and services.”

What this actually means it that we need to extend the tools that we use to show that our practice actually is effective and to justify the actions and decisions that we take. Over the years we have all been caught up in the aftermath of high profile child abuse deaths and the question that is subsequently asked is invariably “how could this have happened yet again?”

The only way that we will begin to answer this question is if we recognise that social workers are part of an organisation and their behaviour is shaped by systemic influences. Human error on its own does not lead to serious case reviews, systemic failure plays a highly significant role. Therefore, we have to stop looking at the individual and consider the question “why did the action taken seem the sensible thing to do at the time?”

Improving practice involves identifying innovations that maximise the factors that contribute to good performance and minimise the factors that contribute to problematic practice. That is the reason why we need evidenced-based practice to help us improve performance and deliver better outcomes for families and children. It is that simple.

As social workers, we make very serious and potentially life-changing decisions about children’s lives and it is crucial that we think deeply and critically about the decisions and assumptions we make. We have an ethical obligation to base our professional judgement on the synthesis of well-researched empirical evidence. Rather than stagnating in a “this is how it’s always been done,” we need to evolve and to constantly be questioning the best way to engage and intervene.

“Evidenced-based practice is an approach to social work that includes the process of combining research knowledge, professional/clinical expertise, and client and community values, preferences and circumstances.  It is a 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 in social work.” Council on Social Work Education.

The importance of the above quote is that it clearly places the responsibility on us as social workers to keep up-to-date with research and to continuously look at our own professional development. The truth is that models of intervention are developing all the time and in order for us to provide the best services to our children and families we have an ethical duty to ensure they receive the best possible outcomes.

“It is, difficult to imagine the basis on which structured, fact-based and well-informed decision making and planning referenced to the best available published research can be viewed as counter either to the provision of effective outcomes for service users, or to the ethos of the social work professional”, (p. 144, Barratt, 2003)

The most important factor in facilitating change toward the use of research in professional practice is whether or not the profession wants to change and this depends on us as individuals within the profession being prepared to endorse the value of evidenced-based practice and to champion it within our interventions.  If we are really committed to ensuring that our clients receive the best possible chances, then we have to embrace the concept of evidenced-based practice and we have to grow and develop in the same way that we expect the children and families we work with to do.

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