Good record keeping is vital social work skill

When my husband had a heart attack last summer, I found myself reflecting on the importance of written records.

In the midst of the crisis, careful notes were made at every point: not only test results and readings from machines, but also his involvement in decision making and reported feelings. Every new person who got involved referred to the record and checked the details with him. Having been dealt with by more than 20 individuals in 24 hours, the meticulous recording of all this information was the backbone of the excellent treatment he received.

Nobody would say that the doctors and nurses were spending too much time dealing with recording or that this was getting in the way of a meaningful relationship with the patient; although they spent a significant proportion of their time doing administrative tasks associated with patient care.

There may not be a direct parallel with social work, but there are things to consider.

Social workers say they now spend too much time on administration, exacerbated by austerity-driven cuts to support services and the proliferation of forms and formats which can get in the way of creating an accessible record. In the drive to ensure that social workers are free to spend as much time as possible in face-to-face contact with people, it's absolutely right that attention is paid to minimising the time spent on administration and it's true that some administrative tasks are better done by others.

However, many of the so-called administrative tasks are essential to the professional task.

Recording events in somebody's life and the contacts with them by professionals paints a necessary picture of how life is for that person. Assessment of risk is critical to planning the right support and interventions and is an essential professional task requiring skill and care. These things are more than administration, but do not count as face-to-face contact.

For many people, the record of contact with them, decisions made and support offered, tells the story of an important part of their life. People who have been in care tell us they are often disappointed to find that the way things have been recorded does not sufficiently explain what the problems were, why decisions were made and what help was given. They want the record to help them to discover what happened and how life was for them. It is part of finding their sense of identity.

The task of keeping records, making assessments and recording decisions is not an unnecessary distraction: it is central to the role of a professional social worker. We must remember this during the course of the debate about how to reclaim face-to-face contact with the people we care for.

It is also an example of a professional issue that Social Work England could promote as it comes into being in April - making good on its commitment to improve professional recognition and standards, as well as effective regulation.

  • Alison O'Sullivan is chair of NCB and former ADCS president

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