Understanding Evidence-Based Social Work

January 15, 2021

At the heart of social work is a recognition that every person has value. Social workers are compelled to actively search for the best interventions, find the most effective treatments and develop innovative programs that find solutions to big challenges.

However, finding the most suitable interventions to support a military veteran manage symptoms of PTSD or guiding a family that’s struggling to locate the most effective educational and emotional support strategies for their child with autism can raise many questions and concerns. Social Workers regularly battle with questions about which paths will produce the most good for the clients with whom they work.

What methods support restorative justice for those who are involved with the court system? What programs offer the most promising results for managing depression while living with chronic stressors of housing insecurity or community safety? How can social workers best meet the bio-pscyho-social-spiritual needs of people facing eviction while attempting to secure housing? These are complex questions that evidence-based practices may help us begin to address.

Though no single solution or answer can resolve these questions, evidence-based social work offers those in the field an valuable model to work from. This approach—based on an inquiry process that seeks out and evaluates effective interventions—harnesses the power of research, using evidence to guide practitioners’ methods and approaches.

What Is Evidence-Based Practice?

Understanding the term “evidence-based practice” can prove useful to social workers who want to ensure their practice best meets the needs of those they serve. The concept of using evidence-based practices isn’t unique to social workers. In fact, many industries embrace the idea, including healthcare and education.

Evidence-based social work uses the most advanced evidence to inform practice, while also integrating practitioners’ clinical expertise with patients’ values and preferences. Working within this scientific framework can help social workers determine what works, in what circumstances and for whom—a process that allows social workers to serve their clients effectively.

For example, research shows that cognitive behavioral therapy can be beneficial to individuals struggling with certain anxiety disorders. This talk therapy increases a patient’s awareness of negative thinking patterns and develops techniques to deal with stressful situations.

Research also consistently shows that some people experiencing serious mental illness may respond well to assertive community treatment, a highly specialized approach that integrates several disciplines and delivers care in the home or in a community setting like a park.

Knowing what treatment methods work best in what situations empowers social workers to make well-informed choices about how to treat the different cases before them.

Why Is Evidence-Based Practice Important?

Evidence-based social work offers important advantages to practitioners and grounds their work in research. This practice model pushes social workers to consistently question their assumptions and regularly seek out new information. It also keeps them attuned to innovation because the process of evidence-based practice leaves little room for stale thinking. It empowers social workers to discover relevant methods, perhaps previously unknown to them, that best address the needs of their clients.

It is challenging work to help individuals who have or are experiencing interpersonal violence; who are recovering from addictions; and who need resources to manage personal crises, health problems and financial emergencies. However, evidence-based care gives social workers new effective tools and techniques to work with, along with many intervention options to choose from.

While social work once relied on commonsense reasoning, authoritative opinions, and tradition, it shouldn’t rely on these things exclusively when scientifically validated practices are available.

Evidence-based practice helps social workers deliver the treatment and services most likely to achieve the goals and meet the needs of their clients. It also helps ensure that successful programs are widely implemented.

For example, the program 30 Days to Family, which aims to help place children just entering the foster care system into safe, appropriate, uninterrupted living situations with relatives, has achieved successes that can be replicated.

By contacting all the grandparents and other relatives within 30 days of children entering the system, the program improved the likelihood of children finding placement with family members and lowered the number of days children spent in foster care.

Some federal agencies and independent research centers publish lists of evidence-based social work programs, such as 30 Days to Family, that allow practitioners to locate effective treatments and interventions that target a wide range of clients and problems.

For example, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) compiles a list of substance abuse prevention and treatment programs that meet high standards of scientific rigor and deliver consistently positive results, which can serve as a valuable resource to social workers.

Establishing Evidence-Based Practices

While randomized controlled trials are typically viewed as a superior way to evaluate best practices, such trials are rarely used in social work for ethical reasons. However, by relying on both quantitative research, which focuses on analyzing large amounts of information to draw conclusions, and qualitative research, which focuses on the close observation of people to understand their social realities, social workers can improve their understanding of effective intervention methods.

In the social work field, establishing evidence-based practices involves choosing, applying and assessing practices and interventions meant to prevent or improve social conditions and problems. The process includes the following steps:

  • Creating an answerable question related to practice needs
  • Turning to research to find the best evidence available to answer that question
  • Critically examining the evidence and its usefulness
  • Applying research findings to practice in a way that also aligns with a social worker’s clinical expertise, a client’s values and other nuances of an individual case
  • Evaluating the outcome

Evidence-Based Practice in Action

In action, evidence-based practice helps social workers transform research into care. Consider clients with eating disorders. Before determining the treatment protocol to use, evidence-based practice directs social workers to clarify the problem:

  • What’s causing the disorder?
  • Is it the result of depression?
  • Is it the result of low self-esteem?
  • Are there any other conditions exacerbating the problem?

With a clear understanding of the problem at hand, social workers can take the next step: researching appropriate treatment.

By using databases of journals and other studies, formulating well-designed queries and reading study summaries, social workers can locate potential treatment methods for their clients. They can then analyze the options to see if the situations of their clients are sufficiently similar to those of study participants.

For example, if study participants with strong family support responded well to an intervention, social workers might reconsider using that treatment option if their clients lack family support.

After selecting the most appropriate method, social workers can discuss the treatment option with their clients and decide how to adapt it to the clients. During interventions, social workers should keep careful records of insights and lessons learned. This can add to their own knowledge base and strengthen their future practice.

Evidence-Based Practice Social Work Examples

Many social work experts push for programs that implement evidence-based social work. The following evidence-based practice social work examples illustrate a range of effective research-based interventions.

Health Promotion The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publishes a useful guide that lists evidence-based health promotion and disease prevention programs. One such program addresses diabetes control and prevention, promoting healthy diets and exercise for people at increased risk of Type 2 diabetes. The specific components of the program include the following:

  • Trainers who work with participants in a community or clinical setting for three months
  • Counseling and coaching
  • Informational sessions about nutrition and exercise

The Community Preventive Services Task Force (CPSTF) studied 53 studies that evaluated 66 programs using these intervention methods and found these programs consistently:

  • Reduced new-onset diabetes cases
  • Increased the chances of participants’ blood sugar levels returning to normal levels
  • Positively affected diabetes risk factors, such as high blood pressure and obesity

Reducing Sexual Violence Among Youth

Another intervention program recommended by the CPSTF addresses sexual violence among youth. To prevent or reduce sexual violence between intimate partners and promote healthy relationships for young people ages 12 to 24, the program uses the following strategies:

  • Teaching relationship skills including conflict resolution and communication, and addressing topics such as sexual consent, sexual respect and empathy
  • Cultivating social norms that counter violence by challenging attitudes that support violence and teaching bystanders methods for intervening against sexual violence
  • Creating safe environments by improving school climates, enacting public policies to prevent sexual violence and improving the safety of community spaces

After close review of 28 studies that examined programs using these intervention methods, the task force found that using all three techniques:

  • Decreased the number of sexually violent acts
  • Reduced the rate of victimization

Childhood Depression

The organization Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development evaluates and recommends community, family and youth programs that use evidence-based interventions to help reduce antisocial behavior and encourage healthy development.

Its Blues Program focuses on depression in adolescents ages 15 to 18 in school settings. For students who have symptoms of depression or those at risk of depression, it engages them in positive activities to reduce negative thoughts and feelings. It involves six one-hour weekly sessions with follow-up homework assignments that:

  • Engage participants in group- and rapport-building activities
  • Teach techniques for changing negative thought patterns
  • Develop plans for ways to deal with specific life stressors
  • Offer activities that help participants identify and record their thoughts

After evaluating several studies that examined programs using these intervention methods, Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development found that the cognitive behavioral program:

  • Reduced the rate of depressive symptoms in participants
  • Reduced the rate of major depressive episodes in participants

Evidence-Based Practice and Research

To engage in evidence-based practice, social workers require access to research that’s as vast and diverse as the circumstances they manage and the people they serve. That’s why robust research lies at the heart of evidence-based social work.

Evidence-based social work relies on learning about the layered areas of social work. Key knowledge includes the following:

Research Focused on Etiology, Treatment and Prevention

With knowledge of etiology, the study of what causes diseases and conditions; treatment methods; and prevention measures, social workers can make well-informed decisions about clients.

Social workers inevitably benefit when they can access developing information about therapy for anxiety disorders, risk factors that make individuals vulnerable to sex trafficking and the causes of different mental health conditions.

Research Focused on Assessing Intervention Methods

Evidence-based social work depends on research that evaluates social interventions. Understanding how well an intervention method works, and under what circumstances, allows social workers to select the most appropriate approach.

Research That Translates Evidence into Practice

Research that explores etiology (the nature of social issues) problems can give social workers insight into client situations. However, those insights may not be easily applied.

For this reason, social workers who are committed to evidence-based practice need research that helps them not only identify effective treatments but also evaluate the best ways to apply those treatments.
Ultimately, studying and evaluating real-life evidence makes evidence-based social work possible. As more social workers use this practice model, additional research will help determine its effect on the field.

Barriers to Evidence-Based Practice

Certain obstacles can get in the way of fully realizing the potential benefits of evidence-based social work.

The Need for Relevant and Up-to-Date Research

Evidence-based social work relies on timely research that addresses different cultures, contexts and experiences. The research needs to fit the context in which social workers practice.

Social workers may find that some approaches don’t fit their clients because they don’t account for differences in context and culture. Interventions that work for treating adolescents with substance abuse disorders in one context may not prove effective in another context.

An additional challenge is that research participants often don’t reflect reality for all clients. Social workers need evidence-based practices tailored to culturally diverse communities.

However, clinical trials and other intervention research sometimes occur in controlled conditions that cannot account for all the variables that can impact an intervention’s effect. In real-world practice, such unusual variables can play an important part in an intervention’s success.

Finally, social workers practice in constantly changing environments, so they must regularly adapt in response to new policies, limited funding and shifting client populations. In contrast, research takes time. This means that research findings can quickly become irrelevant.

The Time Required Outside of Clinical Practice to Dig Through Research

Social workers must balance demanding workloads. Oftentimes, adopting evolving evidence-based practices means digging through layers of complex research. This requires additional time and energy, as does getting trained and up to speed about new practices. The realities of the time it takes to research evidence-based practices and the imperative of implementing practice in a timely manner when emergent client needs arise means that social workers often rely on lessons and evidence they’ve absorbed from their own practice.

Pushback Against Nontraditional Methods

Evidence-based social work can involve unfamiliar or unorthodox approaches that may challenge previously held attitudes and opinions in the field. As a result, individuals and organizations may resist the unfamiliar.

Social workers may find they work in organizations that discourage using nontraditional methods, or an organization may insist practitioners stick to a specific way of thinking.

For example, a substance abuse recovery program may not support using medications to assist with therapy. In such a case, even if evidence shows the use of a particular medicine offers substantial benefits to those in addiction recovery, a social worker could still not refer a client for the treatment.

Additionally, social workers may encounter resistance to the use of evidence-based practice in organizations less focused on innovation and more concerned with risk management and predictability.

Evidence-based social work training in graduate school can equip social workers with valuable tools that can make it easier to implement research-based interventions. Programs, such as partnerships between schools of social work and agencies, can address constraints, providing needed consultation, resources and training.

Innovate the Field of Social Work

Incorporating research-based interventions into social work delivers many benefits. However social workers must overcome barriers to achieve success using this model. To effectively practice evidence-based social work, practitioners must not only have access to a rich trove of research but also have advanced research skills, the knowledge to evaluate research and the training to apply that research.

To cultivate this expertise, practitioners need the right education. An advanced degree in social work can build the research and clinical skills needed to locate proven methods that best serve clients and apply those interventions appropriately. Virginia Commonwealth University offers an advanced degree in social work that prepares graduates to use evidence-based and trauma-informed methods that can make a meaningful difference in people’s lives.

Discover how an online Master of Social Work from Virginia Commonwealth University empowers social workers to innovate solutions to some of the nation’s most daunting social problems.