Across the United States, there are close to 650,000 social workers, of which 80 percent are located in cities. The overwhelmingly urban concentration of social work professionals leaves individuals and families in geographically less-populated areas inadequately covered by critical social support systems.

According to the National Rural Health Association, rural and frontier communities have nearly 140 percent more Health Professional Shortage Areas than their urban counterparts. And even though the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the social work field should grow by 12 percent nationally between 2014 and 2024, current demographic estimates reveal this growth will not be enough to meet the growing social work needs of people living far from urban locations.

To learn more, check out the infographic below provided by the University of Nevada, Reno’s Online Master of Social Work program.

Solutions for Social Work in Rural Communities

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Why It’s Important for Social Workers
to Connect to Rural Populations

Rural Areas Have Less Access to Insurance

Rural consumers face substantial issues when it comes to securing insurance coverage for social work and aligned services. A study by Georgetown University’s Health Policy Institute reveals about one-third of all individuals in rural communities do not have private insurance and have been uninsured for more than three years.

For example, it is common for the self-employed, such as farmers, not to have employer-based insurance. Additionally, these individuals may experience a lack of adequate health insurance for a long period of time, until they are eligible for Medicare at the age of 65. As a result of inadequate insurance access and the age restriction for Medicare coverage, social workers are concerned as to how to best provide mental, emotional and physical support for people living outside cities.

Rural Poverty and Food Insecurity
Increase the Need for Social Services

According to Feeding America, the national organization for hunger advocacy and services, nearly 13 percent of the U.S. population is food insecure and another 5 percent have very low food access. These problems are especially acute in rural areas, where poverty rates are as high as 16 percent, according to the latest findings of the U.S. Census Bureau.

Poverty and food insecurity have been shown to cause elevated stress levels and adverse health effects. Both of these issues effectively increase the need for social services. Studies indicate that, over time, food insecurities can negatively impact cognitive development, mental health and family life.

The Key Technologies That Are Bringing
Social Workers and Rural Patients Together

The advent of the Internet and advances in other communication technologies are enabling social workers to reach rural populations more effectively.

Telemedicine and Technology Assisted Therapy (TAT) are emerging services increasingly being used by social workers to assess and treat clients in remote parts of the country. Technology Assisted Therapy can be any form of therapy that leverages information-related solutions such as videoconferencing, online data, text messaging or other media applications.

If a family living in a rural area has access to adequate Internet, a social worker may be able to determine via video conferencing if symptoms merit further attention. If symptoms can be treated effectively at home, it is easy to prescribe treatment. If on the other hand more attention is needed, the patient can be at ease knowing their trip to town was medically warranted.

Social workers, especially those with a strong mental health background, are able to use the Internet to determine a patient’s well-being by observing their tone of voice and body language as well as the content of the conversation. These ‘virtual’ cues can provide critical data to determine ongoing treatment plans.

Beyond connecting with patients and assisting with treatment plans, the Internet can provide other advantages for social workers. Through the Internet, social workers can confer with colleagues regarding treatment and diagnoses. They can access online clinical databases and client records, record client meetings and conduct industry research. Social media also allows social workers to stay in touch with their peers in real time, monitor the latest industry trends and receive the latest updates in their field of expertise.

The need for social services and social workers in America’s rural areas is critical and continues to expand. Information technologies and other digital solutions are proving invaluable in enabling social service professionals to serve more rural populations more often, and with better results.