Professional standards apply whether or not we‘re working on a voluntary basis or whether we’re working on a paid basis, it’s the standard that we all intend to achieve and are committed to achieving, when we are providing services to clients.
There are a number of issues that regularly recur in meeting those standards. The first is a commitment to being competent, in fact it’s the only time you’ll see ‘must’ in the Ethical Framework, we must be competent to deliver the services that we are providing. And part of that competence is keeping our skills and knowledge up to date, which can be done through a whole variety of different ways, it might be through training, it might be through reading, it might be through using or watching relevant things on YouTube, there are so many different ways now we can keep ourselves up to date.
And another component is keeping accurate records, and the records meet current data protection requirements, in other words, that they’re adequate, relevant and limited to what is necessary for the work being undertaken and that we build collaborative relationships with our colleagues, the subject of a separate section in the Ethical Framework, and also that we have adequate insurance.
And a new area which is still evolving, but which has now a lot of experience in, is more and more of us are offering our services online or a combination of online and face-to-face services, so what are the distinctive aspects of working to professional standards when providing services online or through digital media?
Q1: Do we always have to keep records even if this will deter clients away from seeking our services or clients want our services but won’t consent to keeping those records?
This is an important issue, it is now the normal expectation of all professionals, including our profession, that we keep some sort of record of the work that we’ve undertaken and that’s in part for the protection of clients, but also a secondary benefit from it, is for protection for ourselves as well should issues of concern arise, or sometimes some very practical things, evidence for invoicing or whatever that happens.
So, what happens if we’re providing a service where for instance one of the services I saw some years ago was providing a service to young people in a very run down part of town where young people’s lives were…, sorry I need to go back on that bit of it. An example of where clients might be deterred by keeping records, the people who feel very socially vulnerable or excluded from society, and are we saying that we must keep records in all circumstances regardless of our client’s wishes? Well, no, that would be unethical and particularly if it would really deter clients, but we need to be very clear that the normal expectation is records will be kept, and we need to have some robust justification for not keeping those records and thought through what the consequences might be for clients.
So an example where I’ve seen practitioners working not keeping records, would be either the clients felt so vulnerable they didn’t, they wouldn’t use a service that kept records, or where it was so impossible to keep records secure because of the level of theft or the lack of privacy of the service, or also because under data protection it’s a legal requirement that clients consent to records being kept, we can’t require practitioners to work illegally by overriding their client’s consent in that respect, but then that raises another set of issues, so if you don’t keep records in those circumstances, what are the implications for supervision? What are the implications for accountability? And some agencies will take the view that they won’t work with clients who don’t want records taken, some private practitioners are willing to work with clients in those situations, but clearly it exposes the practitioner at a greater risk if things go wrong, or if their practice is called into question, so they need to think that through and to have discussed all that in supervision, and this is where supervisors’ records could be helpful because they demonstrate that someone has seriously thought through the issues of not keeping records.
Q2: What do you see as the distinctive ethical challenges to working online?
A: Well there are a number of them, first of all and perhaps most important, is being therapeutically effective, so you still need to be competent and skilled to deliver the service you are offering. But putting it online brings together a new distinctive set of challenges, which…, some of those relate to the nature of being able to communicate.
We all know that online communication can be disrupted by poor connections, breakdowns in services and so on, so very often good practice would suggest there should be an alternative means of communication, so if you are communicating on some video platform, you might also have the capacity to send text messages in some way or maybe use an alternative means of communication, if the primary one breaks down. What you don’t want to do is abandon a client in the middle of something significant to them.
Another aspect of that is the security of the communications. Security of communications in all contexts is problematic, in a sense that people sitting in the same room can be overheard, other people can enter the room, but online sometimes these intrusions are less visible, maybe more out of the awareness of one or both parties to the communication, so good security, using an appropriate platform, that is accessible to a client is also important.
And then, because you’re no longer constrained by physical space and physical proximity between client and practitioner, you have to start to think about other issues that start to arise because you can be communicating across legal areas of jurisdiction, so different laws apply to each of the parties and this can be particularly significant if you are dealing with countries like the United States, where increasingly the talking professions are regulated by statutory controls and if you’re not appropriately registered where your client is, you may be committing an offence.
So it’s trying to understand the context of your client and how that impacts on your work and there may be many others too, we will experience as we collectively as a profession expand our work. But the great advantage of working online of course is that it makes our services more accessible, sometimes it overcomes the physical barriers that prevent people, but also there is quite a lot of evidence now, that some client groups who would be very hesitant to come and see us in person, will use online media of various types to seek help.
If a client asks you not to keep records, then probably the safest practice is to, with the client’s agreement, to record that that is what they have asked for in the records and so that it is clear that this is the client’s request, it’s not just sloppy practice by yourself.