Overview of size, composition and role

Overview of group

Description of professionSocial work is the professional activity of helping individuals, groups, or communities enhance or restore their capacity for social functioning and creating societal conditions favourable to this goal.
NumberThere are approximately 18,000 social workers in Australia. About 6000 are members of the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) and of these 17% work in the health sector. The 2006 census indicated 12,444 social workers, and industry coding data shows 30% of social workers are working in health.
Gender mix81% female, 19% male

EXHIBIT 64 - Distribution by Age and State

distribution by age and location - social workersD

EXHIBIT 65 - Overview of practice attributes

overview of respondent practice attributes for social workersD

Education, registration and accreditation

  • An AASW accredited Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree or AASW accredited Master of Social Work (Qualifying) (MSW) degree is required to meet the minimum eligibility requirements for AASW membership. However, the AASW is the standard-setting body for social work and many jobs require eligibility for membership of the AASW.
  • In order to be eligible to register with Medicare, Social Workers must be registered as a ‘Member’ of the AASW and be certified as meeting the standards for mental health set out in the document published by AASW titled ‘Practice Standards for Mental Health Social Workers’ as in force on 8 November 2008.

Funding and referral system

  • Eligible Social Workers can access Medicare on referral from a GP (and in some instances, a psychiatrist or a paediatrician) through the individual allied health items for people with a chronic or terminal medical condition and complex care needs (MBS items 10950-10970); the follow-up allied health items for people of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent (MBS items 81300-81360); the Better Access to psychiatrists, psychologists and General Practitioners through the MBS items (MBS items 80000-80170); and the Pregnancy Support Counselling items for women who are concerned about a current pregnancy, or a pregnancy which occurred in the preceding 12 months (MBS items 81000-81010).
  • Accredited Mental Health Social Workers (AMHSW) who have Medicare provider numbers mainly deliver services under the Better Access items, with a small amount providing services under the individual allied health items.
  • Accredited Mental Health Social Workers are automatically registered with DVA to claim benefits for services provided to entitled veterans when they register with Medicare Australia. Therefore, providing services to veterans is available to all AMHSW with a Medicare provider number.
  • The remainder of social workers in the health sector are largely in salaried positions in public hospitals or the community sector.

Peak National Body

Australian Association of Social Workers
AddressLevel 4, 33-35 Ainslie Place
Canberra City ACT 2601

PO Box 4956
Kingston ACT 2604

ContactTel: (02) 6232 3900

Fax: (02) 6230 4399


Social workers and eHealth

Examples of relevant eHealth applications

Some example uses of eHealth that social workers could benefit from include:
  • Online or telephone-based counselling services
  • Remote supervision of junior social workers
  • Online education and Continuing professional development (CPD)
  • Digital referrals and electronic health records

Current eHealth 'Position'

The technical capabilities of social workers are generally rated as being low, but seem to be improving, particularly over the last decade (5% used computers 10 years ago, compared with 50% today). The AASW moved to introduce online membership renewal in 2009 and many members struggled with this, and older members in particular have struggled to adapt.

They AASW offers an online newsletter which about one third of members access regularly, and discussion forums online.

The commonest uses of computers are for email and data entry for the case management required by Government agencies. Use tends to lag a bit in the private sector where lots of invoices are still handwritten or typed out. About 50% of social workers regularly access the internet to get professional information, and those in the public sector are often required to enter information into an electronic medical record.

Several schools of social work offer distance education online, and there is some limited use of telehealth and tele-supervision programs for rural and remote health. There are also some private practitioners who use online tools, email and SMS to communicate with patients – mostly in the mental health area.

The uptake and rollout of eHealth in the social work profession will mostly depend on endorsement and support from employers. In areas where this has occurred like Centrelink which offers web-based client management systems – social workers skills have increased considerably. Very few social workers seek out the equipment and training they need on their own as the financial barriers are considerable.

The culture of social work really encourages at least one detailed face-to-face consultation with the patient, but continuation of management using eHealth tools is acceptable. Overseas much multidisciplinary care takes place using web-based tools but this is only just starting in Australia.

Many software products for social workers have been developed in the USA but are not available in Australia.

Social workers will find it difficult to accept the PCEHR due to their strong commitment to privacy and confidentiality of clients – this will be a major barrier to participation, particularly where patients have experienced traumatic events, such as sexual assaults.

The AASW is hopeful that the Government will encourage uptake by offering education and training in eHealth tools. It wants private practitioners to be offered financial incentives to upgrade their systems to the appropriate standards to use eHealth.

Key insights from eHealth readiness survey

  • Social workers are an older profession, with 41% of respondents over 55 years of age. 64% reported they saw less than 6 patients per day, and 49% work in more than one practice location. 46% work at least occasionally in a rural or remote area.
  • The dominant use of computers amongst social workers is education and clinical reference (57% access online clinical reference material, 53% complete CPD online). Patient notes (34% use a computer to enter patient notes after a consultation) and completing event summaries (30%) are common applications. In many areas, social workers show strong interest in using computers more widely than they do currently, including collaboration (22% send or receive referrals electronically, while a further 44% would like to, 19% share health records with other practitioners electronically, while a further 34% would like to).
  • 9% of respondents indicated they used telehealth applications, with 31% indicating they were likely to within the next 3 years. Interest in telehealth amongst social workers is largely for training (22% very interested), supervision (21%) and collaboration (15%).
  • 34% of social workers store patient records entirely on paper, although 9% only use computers. Of the 66% who use computerised records in some form, 28% use an EHR. The expectation of computer use is high (for example 60% strongly agree they are expected to use computers) in comparison to the emphasis placed on shared patient records (28% strongly agreed they would like access to a shared patient record).
  • Improving collaboration (30% strongly agree) and continuity of care (24%) are the leading perceived benefits of eHealth for social workers. Social workers also emphasised the potential to broaden their scope of services (23%), increase practice efficiency (22%) and increase number of referrals (20%).
  • Infrastructure for social workers is less prominent than for many other allied health professions. In rural and remote areas, 53% of respondents indicated they did not have access to a computer, and 47% that they did not have internet connectivity.
  • Affordability emerged as the largest barrier for social workers (47% strongly agree), while concerns about patient privacy were also strong (31%). A group of concerns about technology were also prominent (access to adequate IT support 38%, preference for established technology 27%, need to maintain compatibility 26%, concerns about malfunction or downtime 23%)
  • The two leading influences for social workers are financial incentives (54%) and the advice of their professional body (44%).
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