Opinion: Don’t abandon telepractice in a post-pandemic world
During the COVID-19 pandemic years of isolation and lockdowns, many family services sector workers and organisations pivoted rapidly to using telepractice to deliver services to families. Now that the period of rapid change has eased, Kate Spalding from the Parenting Research Centre and Melanie Hughes from Karitane believe telepractice still has a place in the continued delivery of support services to families.
In the midst of the lockdowns, uncertainty and upheaval, there was a swift move to deliver services to families via telepractice – the use of virtual and phone-based technologies to deliver supports traditionally delivered in person. What resulted from this rapid but necessary national change was a fragmented approach to quality service delivery, and an untrained workforce with little guidance on how to implement and evaluate telepractice services.
This triggered the establishment of a partnership between the Parenting Research Centre and Karitane. The NGO Telepractice Venture set out to work collaboratively to support non-government organisations nationally to implement telepractice in a consistent, considered way, founded on the best evidence available and the experience of its members. It also explored the challenges and opportunities telepractice presented to the sector, and to support organisations to effectively implement telepractice and hybrid models of care.
The Venture found that telepractice presents an opportunity for family services sector organisations to engage in hybrid models of care and potentially reach more families, more effectively. And across many organisations, families reported that they wanted this flexibility. However, strong leadership to champion the value of telepractice, continuing effective implementation, and evaluation of virtual service delivery are essential to ensure organisations are using telepractice effectively.
The NGO Telepractice Venture project team, backed by an investor group made up of the NSW Department of Communities and Justice, Association of Children’s Welfare Agencies, and several supporting organisations, set up a Community of Practice (CoP) in 2020 (Phase 1 of the project). This group met monthly to exchange cross-organisational learning information, and develop new, much-needed telepractice resources and training guides. Through Plan-Do-Study-Act cycles and with the support of the project team, members were encouraged to implement a new resource in their organisation to strengthen their telepractice service delivery.
The second phase focused on implementation, using implementation methodology to support CoP members to embed telepractice and hybrid models of care within their organisation. The CoP was supported through training workshops and shared learning to build their workforce capacity to deliver hybrid models of care. A smaller CoP was established and facilitated by the Association of Children’s Welfare Agencies, supporting small- to medium-sized member organisations to share their experiences of implementing telepractice and learn through case studies, use of resources and reflective discussions.
A total of 23 organisations took part in the CoPs, implementing telepractice or hybrid models of care in rural and urban contexts, including working with Aboriginal families, in areas such as family support, parent education, anger management, disability support, men’s programs, financial literacy and allied health services.
A suite of new resources was developed – including four telepractice guides and 14 video resources – to assist practitioners who are running, or intending to run, telepractice support for parents and families.
They are available in the online Telepractice Hub, alongside a curated list of high-quality telepractice resources. The Hub also includes the findings of research conducted by PRC where we asked parents and experts in the child and family support sector about how telepractice can best service families now and into the future.
The Venture also established a space for NGOs to engage in a collaborative approach to building skills and knowledge about telepractice, where they could share their learnings. This collaboration and the free online resources have supported NGOs to build their capacity to offer quality telepractice services. The project has contributed to NGOs’ ability to provide a service continuum that enabled families to engage in ways that work best for them.
Many examples of successful telepractice experiences were shared during the CoP process, including improved attendance at one agency’s anger management classes via Zoom. One man could not attend on-site sessions because of a legal order, another lived too far away to attend physically and a third said he felt more confident and comfortable attending by Zoom.
What we’ve learnt
The Venture found that most people want flexibility and choice in the services they access and that telepractice can be part of a hybrid model of care.
Organisations are keen to continue to offer hybrid models of care but require further support to fully embed it as a new way of working. There also needs to be a system in place that ensures service delivery meets clients’ needs and outcomes.
Within the child and family services sector, the Venture identified the need to champion the potential of telepractice to organisations. There is still more nuanced work to be done to find out what works in this sector. It is not a cut and paste job from in-person services and interventions to working online.
We need a greater understanding of what clients want and need to engage effectively, and further guidance to ascertain what is best used under what circumstances, with what issues and which families.
The NGO Telepractice Venture has made great inroads into building the capacity of the family services sector to harness the benefits and opportunities telepractice offers within a hybrid care system.
We would like to thank the organisations who participated in the Venture – the Association of Children’s Welfare Agencies, Key Assets Australia, Life Without Barriers, Social Futures, The Smith Family, Uniting, LifeStart, My Forever Family, Wanslea and Catholic Care Wilcannia-Forbes.