Promoting Effective Policies and Practices: The Untapped Potential of Systematic Reviews in Social Work Research

Saturday, January 17, 2015: 10:00 AM-11:45 AM
Balconies J, Fourth Floor (New Orleans Marriott)
Cluster: Research Design and Measurement
Symposium Organizer:
Matthew O. Howard, PHD, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Jeffrey M. Jenson, PhD, University of Denver
Background and Purpose: Over the past 50 years, the scientific literature has grown exponentially. PubMed, only one of >1000 searchable computerized bibliographic databases, currently includes 23 million scientific records and adds 500,000 records annually. Scientific studies have also grown increasingly rigorous. The first randomized controlled trial (RCT) was published in 1948; more than 150,000 RCTs are now included in the scientific literature. New methods of research synthesis have also been made possible by the Internet and advances in indexing and abstracting methods. Research synthesists “summarize past research by drawing overall conclusions from many separate investigations that address related or identical hypotheses…and present the state of knowledge concerning the relation(s) of interest and…highlight important issues…research has left unsolved” (Cooper, 2010). Unfortunately, social work has been slow to embrace systematic review (SR) methods. One-half of 1% of the 18,300 articles indexed in Social Work Abstracts since 2000 are SRs.  

Methods: This symposium describes a new doctoral course, “Systematic Reviews & Meta-Analysis,” taught at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Social Work and discusses methods by which four doctoral students were able to prepare professional quality SRs over one semester. Each SR was conducted in an area of key practice importance and highlights one, among many, of the salubrious functions SRs can play in promoting more effective social work policies and practices. Each review was prepared in accordance with best practices for SRs, including AMSTAR/PRISMA guidelines and expert recommendations (Littell et al., 2008).

Results: Todd Jensen will present a review of factors related to stepchildren’s perceptions of stepparent-child relationship quality entitled, “Perceived Stepparent-Child Relationship Quality: A Systematic Review.” Jensen’s review is an excellent example of the role SRs can play in targeting key family/interpersonal processes for intervention development. Kanisha Coleman’s paper, “Factors Associated with Kinship Caregiver’s Formal Service Use: A Systematic Review” identifies critically important, but unmet, service needs of kinship caregivers and factors that bar receipt of needed services. Coleman’s paper exemplifies what SRs can do to improve service delivery to neglected client populations and influence relevant policy. Charity Watkins will present a SR entitled, “Educational Success among Elementary School Children from Low Socioeconomic Status Families: A Systematic Review of Parenting Factors.”  Watkins’ review highlights the social justice role that SRs can play in countering the malign effects stereotyping has on vulnerable populations. By focusing on low income youth who achieve educational success and identifying parenting factors that make success possible, Watkins’ review offers unique insights into resiliency processes that could be strengthened in other youth and parents. Brianna Lombardi’s review, “Bright Light Treatment of Child and Adolescent Depression and Depressive Symptoms: A Systematic Review,” demonstrates how treatments that are touted as effective may rest on relatively weak evidentiary foundations and underscores the role that SRs play in identifying important areas for future research.

Conclusions and Implications: Widespread adoption of SR courses in schools of social work nationally would lead to a dramatic increase in the number of published SRs. This development would enhance social work research, practice, and policy effectiveness.

* noted as presenting author
Perceived Stepparent-Child Relationship Quality: A Systematic Review
Todd M. Jensen, MSW, CSW, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Factors Associated with Kinship Caregivers' Formal Service Use: A Systematic Review
Kanisha Coleman, MSW, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Bright Light Treatment of Child and Adolescent Depression and Depressive Symptoms: A Systematic Review
Brianna M. Lombardi, MSW, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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