For those who have no experience with hearing and speech deficits, it’s hard to grasp just how lonely life can be for those who do. Add to that the self-quarantine and social distancing measures implemented in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak, and it’s a recipe for an incredibly isolating experience. For this reason (and many others), the work that speech-language pathologists do isn’t just important—it’s essential. So, in honor of Better Hearing and Speech Month, we wanted to highlight some incredible ways SLPs are helping the world fight the current pandemic.
Working on the Front Lines
On the front lines of the pandemic response, speech-language pathologists have been vital to helping patients who are recovering from COVID-19. But, the disease has presented a unique challenge for SLPs: there’s very little research or guidance on how to treat recovering COVID-19 patients—particularly with respect to safely addressing verbal communication deficits. And yet, as patients are brought off ventilators, an SLP is often the first provider consulted. One such provider is Talia Schwartz, MS, CCC-SLP, Senior Speech-Language Pathologist at New York Presbyterian/Columbia Irving Medical Center. In this article for Dysphagia Cafe, Schwartz describes her experiences working with post-COVID patients in New York City, which has been hit harder than any other region in the country: “In some ways, treating COVID-19 patients has been no different than treating other cases. We are using clinical judgment, critical thinking skills, and communicating with medical teams—as we always have done.”
But, she goes on to say that “in other ways, our practice has drastically changed to accommodate the COVID-19 situation. We are relying heavily on our bedside skills given the lack of access to instrumental assessment. We are deferring assessments until we feel the patient presentation is optimized. We stopped ambulatory appointments very early on and have transitioned to televisits for our outpatients. We are now admitting COVID patients to acute rehab!”
Conducting Community Outreach
Outside of NYC, speech and hearing providers across the country have stepped up to support their communities through the crisis. In Johnson City, TN, students and staff from the Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology department at East Tennessee State University have developed an outreach program to assist pediatric patients and families who experience communication disorders. “We did not want to lose our face-to-face interaction with our families who rely on our services,” said Dr. Teresa Boggs, director of clinical services for ETSU speech-language pathology. “So, we developed a way to remain connected virtually, not only with the families we already serve but also as an outreach to the entire community.”
The team at ETSU put together the following three-pronged initiative to support patients and family members across multiple platforms:
- Family Outreach, which involves creating at-home programs for pediatric patients based on their current goals.
- SLP Connect, which provides an appropriate game, book, or toy to parents of children with communication disorders.
- Social Media Outreach Program, for which SLP graduate students create short videos that are then posted to social media in an effort to assist parents of all children with communication disorders—not just those who are current patients.
According to Olivia Page, a second-year graduate student in the ETSU program, “The community outreach that our program is participating in is vital for the families we serve. The beauty of this outreach program is keeping the clinicians and families connected. We want our families to know they are not alone. In the situation we are all facing right now, we will overcome, adjust, and adapt.”
Through all of this, patients still need care, and providers have found themselves looking for ways to continue treatment while also adhering to social distancing guidelines. Many SLPs have looked to telehealth (or “teletherapy”) as a solution, but implementing an entirely new practice model in the middle of a pandemic is no day in the park. Still, the SLPs at The Pioneer Center in Chillicothe, Ohio, have found success with this shift, which they attribute to adopting the virtual care model early on. In an article for Chillicothe Gazette, Jill Adams, SLP, discusses how the team transitioned to telehealth: “The decision to use teletherapy was made almost immediately in early intervention,” Adams explained. “We immediately began to teach ourselves how to use these video conferencing systems—it really happened very quickly as we knew we needed to adapt if we were going to be able to continue to offer needed services to our children.”
That swift action has paid off: parents of pediatric patients have found this approach incredibly flexible and easy to adopt. In some cases, parents have even found they prefer the convenience and relaxed atmosphere of virtual care over in-clinic visits.
Of course, there are occasional challenges, particularly when it comes to tech issues—something Lauren Szot, M.S., CCC-SLP, owner of Tall City Speech in Midland, TX, has experienced first hand. To combat this, she’s gone above and beyond to meticulously prepare for each session. She also sends weekly emails to parents, and she even started a YouTube channel. “My job right now is just offering a little bit of hope to those parents, offering some normalcy, some routine to their daily struggle because everybody's struggling—whether it be financially, emotionally, or physically,” Szot said in this article for NewsWest9.
Many peds patients also thrive on routine—something all kids are sorely lacking as schools remain closed nationwide. To address this obstacle, The Pioneer Center has provided a plethora of resources, from calming exercises to informational packets. As Adams puts it, “The key is to keep an open mind, look at each child as an individual, determine his/her specific needs, and attempt to meet those needs to the best of our ability.”
If there’s one thing the past two months have proven, it’s that speech and hearing providers are incredibly adaptable and absolutely essential. Whether they’re helping patients on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, or they’re taking some of the burden off parents who are working with children at home, these challenging times would be way more challenging without them. So, happy Better Hearing and Speech Month to SLPs everywhere! Thank you for everything you do—now and any time.