Pandemic presents challenges for speech pathologists

by George Jared ([email protected]) 2,055 views 

Scientists in the 1920s began to develop methods for helping those with speech impediments. Those efforts accelerated after many soldiers came home from World War II with a host of brain injuries that impacted verbal and non-verbal communications.

Arkansas State University Speech and Hearing Center (ASUSHC) trains students in the speech pathology field, and it is facing unique challenges in the age of COVID-19.

The center, a part of ASU’s College of Nursing and Health Professions, is growing steadily as proven by a recently released productivity report outlining the success and all of the services offered to the community free of charge.

The center provides clinical training for speech pathology students, Dr. Amy Shollenbarger, chair of the Department of Communication Disorders, told Talk Business & Politics. Each semester, 30 students receive a live clinical education under the supervision of licensed speech pathologists.

“Our students provide the therapy and are supervised by licensed speech-language pathologists [SLPs],” Shollenbarger said. “The purpose of the ASUSHC is to train our students to become competent SLPs and to provide a service to the community. Keeping that in mind, we try to recruit clients with various communication disorders so our students get experience treating them.”

The Speech and Hearing Center is a clinical laboratory where speech-language pathology students gain practicum experience through the supervised delivery of speech, language and hearing services to individuals with communication disorders. The center also contracts with schools and agencies to provide services away from the campus. Services provided by the clinic are free to clients.

Placement into the program is extremely competitive. It’s one of five speech pathology programs in the state, and it has expanded from 25 students a semester to 30. There are no plans to expand the class size beyond that at this time, Shollenbarger added.

“It’s a rigorous program that requires a graduate degree … we have a lot of really good people that come through our program,” she said.

A speech pathologist is an expert in communication. They study speech, language, voice, fluency and swallowing in people of all ages. It wasn’t until the late 1960’s that a distinction between speech disorders and language disorders was recognized. A speech disorder is identified as when someone has a hard time producing speech sounds and stuttering occurs. A language disorder is when someone has trouble understanding others and can’t share their own thoughts and feelings, according to Speech Easy.

It takes a lot of schooling and research to officially become a trained speech pathologist. All speech pathologists must have their master’s degree at a minimum, but many go on to achieve their doctorate. In many states, after schooling, they must also pass a national exam to achieve their state license. Many choose to go on to earn the Certificate of Clinical Competence in Speech-Language Pathology (CCC-SLP) from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

During 2019, ASU students and faculty spent more than 4,200 hours providing speech, language and hearing aid to the community, including 1,213 students in private and public schools. In addition, services were provided during the first Special Olympics health screening and student clinicians partnered with Hispanic Community Services in after-school programs, placing emphasis on the English language and focusing on improving reading, speaking, writing and spelling in English.

Assisting clients on both a regular basis and for short-term rehabilitation, work by the center’s students and faculty increased significantly during the last two years. The center participates in the Healthy Ager project that facilitates hearing health literacy, screening and evaluation to a new group of patrons. The College of Nursing and Health Professions works in conjunction with the Center on Aging-Northeast on this endeavor.

Each Health Ager — adults 65 years and over — is matched with an interdisciplinary team that includes students in physical therapy, nursing, clinical lab science, social work, communication disorders and nutrition. The ASUSHC also runs a literacy intervention program through which evidence-based interventions to improve reading, writing, and spelling are provided to individuals at risk for reading failure.

In all, in 2019 the ASUSHC conducted more than 3,900 therapy sessions, a 32% increase from 2018.

The ASUSHC also established an extended external clinical list in 2019 that included 55 clinical supervisors providing students with instruction and oversight in many clinical settings. New settings added in 2019 included the school districts of Mountain View, Hot Springs, West Plains, Mo., Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, N.Y., National Park Hospital in Hot Springs, and Cox Health in Springfield, Mo.

Initially, ASUSHC closed its doors when the university put all courses online and closed its academic buildings due to COVID-19. Student clinicians gaining experience treating speech, language and swallowing disorders in the on-campus clinic had to abruptly inform their patients that they would not be able to finish the semester. Following a two week period of planning and retooling, the ASUSHC reopened by delivering services through telepractice. Graduate students and their faculty supervisors have worked together with their patients using a HIPAA-secure video chat format.

The telepractice model will ensure that students make progress toward their degree with the goal of an on-time graduation, in spite of clinical opportunities being difficult to manage during the pandemic. Arianne Pait, director of the clinic, is looking for new client referrals. No special equipment other than a laptop or smartphone is required.

The center has developed a plan for the fall that includes the use of personal protective equipment, plexiglass screens and other implements. Speech pathologists have to talk with patients during a session, meaning they can’t wear actual masks during treatments, she added. It’s a complex problem to have during a pandemic, but Shollenbarger said she thinks the staff and students are ready to meet this challenge.

“We’re excited … we think we’ve got a good plan,” she said.