Keeping it real
This leading human services researcher takes a practical approach to her work.
Keeping pace with the rapidly changing environment of social work has always been the motivation for Associate Professor Debbie Plath's research.
"I like to regard my research as being responsive to current issues for social work practitioners and human services," says Plath, who is aligned with the Research Institute for Social Inclusion and Wellbeing (RISIW).
"I want practitioners to have access to knowledge that informs their work and shapes better services for their clients."
Her experience as a social worker before progressing into academia has influenced this view and shaped her research directions. Plath has been at the University of Newcastle for nearly 20 years and was part of the team that established the Bachelor of Social Work program at Newcastle.
Typical of the profession-focused nature of her research is a recent project undertaken with colleague Dr Jill Gibbons that evaluated single-session social work in the hospital system.
"A lot of the literature and textbooks make the assumption that social workers will build up a relationship with clients over a period of time but with the length of stays in hospital getting shorter, there is a greater prevalence of single-session work," Plath explains.
"So it is a reality, and the profession needs to respond to that and work out how practitioners can make best use of that limited time."
Working within the Hunter Area Health Service network, Plath and Gibbons found that about 10 per cent of hospital social work interventions were single sessions.
By interviewing practitioners and clients they were able to produce some guidelines on how to conduct an effective single-session intervention. They have since run workshops on the subject for social workers in the hospital system and have several international publications on their research.
"We came up with principles for effective practice that encompassed things like the importance of early engagement and realistic goal setting for what can be achieved in a session, and the need to provide information in a form that clients can take away with them," Plath says.
"There was, particularly among new graduates, a feeling that single-session work wasn't real social work. So I think the research went a long way towards validating this kind of work, especially with the feedback we received from clients that it was a valuable intervention."
Plath is internationally recognised for her work on ageing, particularly her research into independent living among the elderly. In 2007 she was invited to participate in research through the International Federation on Ageing, conducting a comparative study of ageing policy across different countries and evaluating the definition of independence from varying cultural perspectives.
She has also written widely on the merits of evidence-based practice in social work and co-authored the book Evidence-Based Social Work: a Critical Stance with RISIW Director Professor Stephen Webb and leading social work researcher Professor Mel Gray.
The impressive publication portfolio of all three contributed to the Faculty of Education and Arts this year receiving an ERA (Excellence in Research Australia) rating of four in Social Work. It was the highest rating awarded in Australia and ranks the quality of the Faculty's research in Social Work above world standard.
The trio is currently involved in a project funded by the Australian Research Council investigating the implementation of evidence-based practice in the human services, which Plath hopes will assist social workers in understanding and applying research findings.
"The University has really good connections with social work practice and a commitment to facilitating the translation of research in the field," she says.