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Abstract Graphic Shapes

AI for Social
Service Providers

Identifying opportunities for technology to assist

social workers, community health workers,

and peer support specialists

within integrative healthcare models.

Project Overview

About

Despite the rapid expansion of artificial intelligence into the domain of healthcare, social service providers—specifically, social workers, community health workers, and peer support specialists—have been relatively overlooked as potential users.

In collaboration with the IC2 Institute, my Capstone team researched the priorities, pain points, and perceptions of social service providers in order to identify opportunities for mindful technological integration. What problems would social service providers want AI to solve? How might AI enhance the ability of these workers to meet the needs of their complex caseloads? What would AI look like, from their perspective?

Ultimately, we want to imagine a future in which a greater diversity of healthcare professionals can benefit from AI, while also addressing the dilemmas that these technologies provoke.

Objective

Identify opportunities where AI might enhance the contributions and experiences of social service providers within integrative health models.

Institution

University of Texas at Austin —
M.A. in Design Focused on Health

Client

IC2 Institute

Team

Role

Skills

Timeline

Isabel Alexander, Laura Long,
Karl Sheeran, Tanya Sasnouskaya

Lead Researcher & Strategist

User interviews, contextual observations, intercept surveys, qualitative research synthesis,
service blueprinting, graphic design,
low-fidelity prototyping

14 weeks (part-time) — Spring 2024

Blackened Paper

01. Define

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02. Research

Using a range of qualitative methods, we sought to understand the priorities, perceptions, and pain points of social service providers in order to augment their existing workflows via the mindful integration of AI.

Interviews

We conducted 16 in-depth interviews with social workers, peer support specialists, a foresight practitioner, and an emergency physician. To guide our research, we constructed a triangular framework with questions regarding the interrelated workflow components that all healthcare providers have in common: patient care, interdisciplinary collaboration, and administrative tasks. Meanwhile, we probed on factors that might influence AI adoption at individual, organizational, and societal levels.

16

Interviews

3

Community

Health Workers

3

Peer Support

Specialists

2

Subject Matter

Experts

8

Social Workers

Intercept Surveys

In addition to our structured interviews with recruited participants, we conducted intercepts at a recurring community health worker social event. We used this opportunity to distribute QR codes linked to a survey with a condensed set of interview questions.

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Contextual Observations

I also did a ride-along with the Austin Community Health Paramedic (CHP) program—a novel initiative to connect patients with non-urgent 911 calls to community resources, instead of transporting them to the emergency department. Although community paramedics were not formally considered part of our scope, they provided a complimentary perspective to our interviews with traditional social service providers. 

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Analogous Research

Lastly, we visited the IC2 Institute for a prototype demonstration of a work-in-progress technology to assist behavioral health providers and their patients with real-time emotion data tracking.

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Synthesis and Insights

Our synthesis board, containing observations, patterns, analysis, and insights.

After synthesizing our primary research, we arrived at the following insights, which highlight the interconnected challenges—and potential avenues for improvement—experienced by social service providers.

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Click to expand each insight below!

  • Social workers, peer support specialists, and community health workers are the connective tissue of healthcare—experiencing both strength and strain.
    At their core, social workers, community health workers, and peer support specialists are liaisons—serving as connective tissue between patients and providers; between patients and community resources; and between social and medical models of healthcare. These social service providers create a shared definition of health that prevents miscommunications and builds mutual investment in patient outcomes. While this connection is essential to providing holistic care, it may create strain for workers who straddle multiple realms. “If a patient wants to communicate with the clinical team, a peer support specialist can be a shortcut to get the doctor’s attention.” (PSS03) “[When] cultural views become directly at odds with the western medical system… the social worker gets brought in the middle, to bring these two views together.” (SW01)
  • In settings where social perspectives on health are deprioritized or devalued, interdisciplinary collaboration falters.
    While medical practitioners are guided by clear diagnostic criteria, social service providers deal largely with issues that transcend organizational and domain boundaries, each with their own challenges and metrics. In other words, traditional medicine views health through a microscope, whereas social service providers view health through a telescope. These different lenses may result in hierarchical friction, misunderstandings of roles, and disjointed collaboration between medical and social providers in certain care settings. When connective tissue is not valued, it breaks down—ultimately compromising the quality of patient care. “[Compared to doctors], social workers can be a bit more squishy in how they’re communicating with people…. But we all have a Masters of Science, and social workers do more than just the touchy feely side.” (SW01) “During one of our cross-hierarchy meetings, one of the surgeons turned to me and said, “What training do you even have?” (SW05) “Typically, social workers are advocating for patients one way, and the medical team the other way.” (SW04) “If we’re only working in silos, and we’re working against each other or not being complimentary, that leads to frustration.” (SW02)
  • A deeply siloed system shifts the burden of data synthesis onto already under-resourced social service providers.
    Originally designed to fulfill reimbursement requirements, electronic health records (EHRs) lack the capacity for seamless integration of patient medical histories. As a result, social service providers often find themselves burdened with time-consuming chart reviews that are at odds with their demanding caseloads—impeding their ability to derive meaningful conclusions that are necessary for comprehensive patient care. “When I do chart review, I want to get a full picture of what’s going on with a patient. But I currently only get snippets here, snippets there. I could spend a whole day just doing one patient’s chart review.” (SW02) "I want to be able to tell the story about what we do and how we do it, and I wish it was easier to pull this info.” (SW04)
  • Social service providers have snapshots of patient journeys. What they need is the bigger picture.
    Due to the fragmented nature of health data systems, it difficult and time-consuming for social practitioners to track longitudinal patient outcomes and provide care continuity. This obscures the big-picture view both within and beyond their own care provision. As a result, social service providers must either go to great lengths, or give up altogether, on visualizing and documenting patient journeys. “Things are not always connected back to each other.” (PSS01) “The lack of follow-up with clients is frustrating. What happened to them? Do they still need connection to services?” (SW07) “It would be nice to close the loop with patients.” (CHW02)
  • A decentralized database of community resources forces social service providers to reinvent the wheel when making patient referrals.
    Given the fragmented and outdated repository of community resources, social service providers go through roundabout and time-consuming processes to find and contact local organizations. Over time, these workers develop their own knowledge base through personal experience and word of mouth—but rarely is that knowledge passed on to the practitioners that follow them, creating a cycle of duplicative learning. “A lot of the resources out other are wrong or outdated. And then we’d have to say to the patients ‘Oh, you don’t qualify for this’ or ‘This doesn’t actually exist.’ Which is more demoralizing than it is beneficial. This is just creating more barriers to patients getting what they need.” (SW01) “We all just have a binder of different resources that we knew of or heard through the grapevine.” (SW05) “We generally have our list of go-to resources… and anything we don’t know about, we crowdsource with each other.” (SW06)
  • Burdensome administrative requirements hijack the time and energy that social service providers have to connect deeply with their patients—preventing these workers from fully utilizing their core skills and passions.
    In trying to satisfy both the administrative and relational components of their work under time constraints, social service providers are forced to prioritize one at the expense of the other. However, achieving balance may mean sacrificing their own professional boundaries in the process. This may lead to feelings of chronic underperformance and failure to meet clients’ needs, ultimately contributing to high rates of staff turnover. "Documentation and billing are a necessary impediment to doing the real work." (PSS03) “Administrative things are taking up too much time, to the point where it’s not worth it anymore.” (SW01) “You don’t need a master’s degree to fill out family medical leave paperwork.” (SW06) "The administrative side piles up, and at that point you’ve forgotten your conversation with the patient…. But when patients see you taking notes, they're not going to share everything with you. So I try to avoid that." (CHW02)
  • Social practitioners feel powerless to fundamentally change the system that they work within, resulting in harsh self-evaluation.
    Given the qualitative and nuanced nature of their work, social practitioners struggle to define success metrics for a job well done. This challenge is compounded by compassion fatigue and the inability to address underlying societal issues, resulting in the problematic tendency to gauge self-worth based on patient outcomes. “Talking with patients is the best part, but it’s also tough to realize that you don’t have all the answers and support for them.” (SW08) “It’s very intense, stressful work. Usually there’s an expiration date on clinicians in this field.” (SW05) “People go into this space because they hold the values and want to enter and disrupt these systems. But you just become pawns of the systems.” “Extension of a problematic system.” (CHW Intercepts)
  • Social service providers believe that they provide inherently human services that cannot be replicated by AI.
    Because they perceive AI to be formulaic, social service providers are concerned about its capability to comprehend and integrate the social nuances that are essential for customizing patient care. Ultimately, they worry about the impact of AI on both their own job security and patient outcomes. “AI is black and white. Social work is grey.” (SW01) “A lot of times, social circumstances don’t fit into a clinical algorithm.” (SME02) “Technology isn’t going to help us get better; it’s the relationships that will help us get better.” (CHW01) “Documenting conversations with patients is where my lack of trust in AI comes in. Much of what I’m documenting is my clinical judgement.” (SW05) “I don’t think a computer program can fully take into account someone’s 20-year history.” (PSS01)
  • AI is intangible and abstract, but social service providers are open to its potential.
    Initially, the hard-to-define concept of AI doesn’t sit well with social service providers who want to ensure their patients/clients are receiving the best possible care. However, once prompted and given the opportunity to think through specific applications, they were cautiously optimistic of its potential. "Could Al actually take bias out of social work?" (SW01) "Maybe Al could democratize access to community resources." (CHW01) “AI has untapped potential.” (PSS03)
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We are currently in the ideation and prototyping stages of our project. 
Please check back later for updates!

The Team

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Laura Long, Tanya Sasnouskaya, Isabel Alexander, Karl Sheeran

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