BPD Update Online, Winter 2007
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Joan Levy Zlotnik

IASWR and Evidence-Based Practice:


The words ‘evidence-based practice’ (EBP) are permeating the education, practice, research and policy arenas in social work and many other disciplines.  Tasked with working within the profession to develop social work’s knowledge base, the Institute for the Advancement of Social Work Research (IASWR) monitors developments related to EBP and is undertaking initiatives to strengthen the linkages between research and practice and research and policy, including identifying and supporting evidence-based practice efforts within social work education.   


Definitions and Criteria.  The Institute of Medicine (2001) defines evidence-based medicine as the integration of best researched evidence and clinical expertise with patient values.  This definition has been readily adapted into a social work context. For example, the National Association of Public Child Welfare Administrators’ (NAPCWA) Guide for Child Welfare Administrators on Evidence-Based Practice uses the IOM definition, but changes “patient values” to “family/client values” (Wilson & Alexandra, 2005).


It is important to distinguish evidence-based practice from evidence-based practices.  Evidence-based practice is a multi-step process to identify the most appropriate intervention or social work action, based on finding and assessing the best available research evidence, and then using the critical thinking and assessment skills to combine the research findings with professional expertise and ethics and understanding of the client’s situation and values.  Evidence-based practices are defined as discrete interventions that have been identified as meeting a certain standard of evidence, often based in part on an assessment of the rigor and power of the research.  Several government agencies have developed clearinghouses for evidence-based practices.  For example:


      http://cancercontrolplanet.cancer.gov: Cancer Control PLANET (Plan, Link, Act, Network with Evidence-based Tools) developed by the National Cancer Institute.

      http://www.w-w-c.org/: What Works Clearinghouse, developed by the Department of Education (to provide educators, policymakers, and the public with a central, independent, and trusted source of scientific evidence of what works in education.)

      http://www.colorado.edu/cspv/blueprints/index.html: Blueprints for Violence Prevention, developed by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to identify research-based effective programs.


These clearinghouses need to include in their understanding of evidence-based practices a clear and transparent description of the criteria that are used for selection of programs that are evidence-based.  The National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors; Research Institute (NRI) has useful information about defining evidence-based practices, a directory of several resources that describe criteria for defining which practices are evidence-based as well as important information in implementation of evidence-based mental health practices.  For more information, visit NRI’s Center for Mental Health Quality and Accountability at http://www.nri-inc.org/projects/CMHQA/criteria_epb.cfm.


Teaching. In October 2006, the University of Texas, Austin convened a symposium, “Improving the Teaching of Evidence-Based Practice.”  To kick off the symposium eight papers and four reactor papers, including one by IASWR Executive Director Joan Levy Zlotnik were commissioned and more than 150 participants worked in small groups to make recommendations to address the symposium’s goal.  To review the papers and the recommendations visit:   http://www.utexas.edu/ssw/ceu/practice/articles.html.


Research.  Research plays an important role in EBP, since the best available research evidence is one important leg of the three legged stool of EBP. Although some EBP efforts only include research evidence from randomized controlled trials (RCT), from a social work perspective both quantitative and qualitative research provides important inputs for EBP. Furthermore, there are a limited number of social service interventions for which there are sufficient RCTs to use as the only research evidence and RCTs may not be an appropriate research method to address some social problems.  One growing area of research assessment includes systematic reviews of research such as those supported by the Campbell Collaboration (C2) (www.campbellcollaboration.org).  Such reviews may often include meta-analyses that use a statistical process to compare and combine the outcomes from studies of specific interventions.  C2 provides a valuable website with information on the outcomes of systematic reviews as well as reviews that are underway.  Other international resources include the Social Care Institute for Excellence, www.scie.org.uk, which is working to create a knowledge base of what works best for people who use social care and the Evidence Network of the United Kingdom’s Centre for Evidence Based Policy and Practice, ebp@qmw.ac.uk.


IASWR’s efforts to promote high quality social work research are one path toward strengthening the social work profession’s evidence-base. IASWR is also involved in tracking activities related to EBP in the practice, research, policy and practice community.  One such activity is highlighted below.



IOM Committee on Quality of Health Care in America (2001). Crossing the Quality Chasm. Washington, DC:  National Academies Press.


Wilson, C. & Alexandra, L. (2005). Guide for Child Welfare Administrators on Evidence-Based Practice. Washington, DC: National Association of Public Child Welfare Administrators. Retrieved January 16, 2007 from http://www.aphsa.org/home/doc/Guide-for-Evidence-Based-Practice.pdf



The National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH) has awarded IASWR a contract entitled Partnerships to Integrate Evidence-Based Treatments into Social Work Training.  Project activities are to:

         Develop an overview of evidence-based resources applicable to social work practices in mental health;

         Scan states and social work education programs to identify current projects underway that might serve as a model to other schools;

         Work with NIMH to convene an invitational meeting of representatives of social work education, practice and research organizations, SAMHSA and other experts on curriculum development and EBP; and

         Develop a report of the proceedings and outcomes. 

If you have information to share, please contact IASWR at jlziaswr@naswdc.org.

For more information, contact Joan Levy Zlotnik, PHD, ACSW, Executive Director of the Institute for the Advancement of Social Work Research or visit www.iaswresearch.org.  To subscribe to the IASWR listserv, please email listserv@listserv.sc.edu and leave the subject line blank.  In the message line, type subscribe iaswrlst, followed by your first and last name.

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