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A quick Google search of the term ‘whole-person care’ defines this as the patient-centred optimal use of diverse healthcare resources or a mindset that values and supports patients to be partners in their care. But how does the term apply to social welfare services and social work?

This question has come up recently in the activities of our resilience and transformation working group, a recent webinar on inclusive activation, preparations for the 31st edition of the European Social Services Conference and the 5th European Social Services Awards. Conversations around the integrated provision of care and support are shifting towards whole-person approaches to prevent people seeking support falling through the cracks.

These developments emerge from the recognition that often people’s needs are spread across policies and we need to meet people where they are. If we do, we will also be able to eliminate the burden on services. People are finding increasingly difficult to navigate different programmes and eligibility rules. A whole-person approach reduces those burdens, particularly if we can do it well.

Realising the vision of whole-person care and support requires a system approach that overcomes the current patchwork of siloed programmes and agencies utilising all possible policy drivers. As the complexity of needs evolves and our social demographics change, we ought to think about how our social welfare system and services progress from a whole-person perspective. To deliver this change and to ensure the highest possible standards, we need to bring the best and brightest into social services and be innovative in how they are supported to develop the skills they need.

This support is increasingly delivered through IT and digital means. As we will learn at our upcoming European Social Services Conference, there is a lot of change happening quickly in AI, automation, RPA, which is really disrupting service delivery models, and social services are catching up with these developments. This technology shift is really pushing us to think about how to use it to ensure that everyone can be supported in the best possible way. In many places across Europe, data-driven and AI technology is driving matching and decision-making support to speed up the administrative aspects of social services programmes to then create space for professionals to do more of what they do best - social work.

Data exchange and integration and more use of data is key for a whole-person approach. Social services agencies working together towards a common in-take approach has positive impact on assessing and recognising people’s needs from a broader perspective. Too often one programme is collecting information in one way and another is collecting information in a different way. A shared approach allows for a more integrative view of the individual’s needs and a better joint allocation of services.

But a focus on a whole-person approach is not just about someone’s needs for care and support. It is about considering the individual’s strengths and priorities. This means that professionals need to work in collaboration between themselves but specifically in collaboration with people using services, supporting them to do things for themselves, so that they are not just recipients but instead are actively involved in coproducing and developing their support programme. Personalisation is at the heart of this transformation. This involves determining the cost of support based on needs and giving the choice and control to people so that they can best meet their individual outcomes. How ready are public authorities and societies to provide this degree of freedom of choice and control?