Redefining the SLP’s Work
Traditionally, the job of an SLP (Speech-Language Pathologist) was relatively easy to define. Drawing upon her education and experience, the SLP would prep, spend an hour or so with her client focusing upon the particular deficit that needed help, and deliver the appropriate therapy. After the post-session notes, it would be on to the next client.
However, the wonders of technology are putting that definition to the test. SLPs, like everyone else in the workforce, are facing continuous innovation and transformation that will change both the way that they think about their profession, as well as how best to provide the benefits that they can offer those whom they serve.
The future of Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD), according to a cadre of audiologists, SLPs, and futurists, will see monumental changes in the coming years. Technological automation is quickly replacing many “hard skills” with machines. A necessary consequence is that “soft (people) skills” and sophisticated diagnostic and intervention skills will become even more critical.
SLPs will now be able to delegate some routine services and tasks to assistants, or to the patients’ family members, which will free up their time to focus on more strategic problem-solving and clinical decision-making to improve the person’s functional outcomes.
The Automation Revolution
A recent study by Moshe Vardi of Rice University showed that automation has reshaped the U.S. workforce. Practically one-third of all manufacturing jobs disappeared between 1998 and 2010. Outside of manufacturing, specific daily tasks have been entirely replaced by machines, such as ATMs replacing most bank tellers and shopping online without any human assistance.
While it is unfortunately true that the automation of hard skills has taken a heavy toll in specific sectors of the economy, in the CSD arena, it can be beneficial. Automation holds the promise of freeing clinicians from performing specific repetitive tasks and allowing them to focus more on innovation and effective intervention.
This change of focus can already be seen in the medical sector, where computers can read millions of MRI images, more than a doctor could ever see in a lifetime. Yet the doctor still needs to make the critical decision. And it is the doctor who must talk with the patient and family about the implications of the diagnosis, treatment options, and other issues.
Person-centered care is precisely as it sounds. It is care that is centered around the client, who is surrounded by a wheel of “helpers.” The SLP is one “spoke” on the wheel. But there are other “spokes” as well, such as other therapists, teachers, school personnel, and family members.
To maximize the client’s care, the various “spokes on the wheel” need to understand each other’s roles as well as to know how to communicate with one another. While SLPs understand precisely what they do, unfortunately, some of the other “spokes” may not. This lack of understanding can lead to missed opportunities when someone who could benefit from speech therapy is never identified or engaged.
As automation continues to allow those in the helping professions to focus more on innovation and intervention, person-centered care is becoming more of a reality. This refocusing, combined with improved communication, allows these professionals to move out of their silos into collaborative forums that will enhance client services.
The Benefits of Collaboration
Collaboration, whether with family members or other professionals, will require the SLP to relinquish control over certain aspects of client care, and learn to properly train and supervise other care providers. According to industry experts, assistants and family members will assume some of the tasks previously done by SLPs.
It is no longer necessary that the SLP be the only one who is observing a client practicing the prescribed behaviors until they are mastered. The unique value of the SLP is not in her attending to every need of the client, but instead in that she alone can assess the problem, prescribe strategies to help, and ensure the plan is implemented correctly through the agency of others, such as parents or other adult family members.
Aside from involving the family in practicing skills, other tasks can be delegated to an SLP assistant (SLPA). Such delegation is quite common in other health services: physicians and dentists aren’t with the patient for the entire visit. Instead, they spend their time focused on those services that demand their unique skills, while other less specialized tasks are delegated to assistants. SLPs could be doing the same.
Delegating tasks shouldn’t be seen as anything but positive. Family members have considerably more flexibility, as they naturally spend more time with the client, and are in a better position to modify the practice time to what is most suitable for the client. And even those in the family who don’t have the natural aptitude to help could be taught.
Telepractice is another way for SLPs to maximize their talent and opportunities to help. By eliminating travel time, and embracing the scheduling flexibility that telepractice offers, more people who need speech-language therapy can be helped.
It has been observed that even preschoolers may warm to telepractice more quickly than to face-to-face sessions. Today’s children are incredibly familiar and comfortable with the technology that telepractice utilizes. Even high school students who balk at receiving speech therapy think that being engaged in a clinical session on a computer is “cool.” Being digital natives, this is how they see the world.
Telepractice has the potential to revolutionize how SLPs see their work. They no longer need to choose between where they want to live and where there is work available. The work is everywhere. And telepractice allows SLPs to remain focused exclusively on delivering the therapy, without concerns about commuting, weather, or serving some unrelated function in the school.
A Final Word
Some continuously debate the pros and cons of technology. This debate is often quite loud in the helping fields such as health care and the therapies. In a sense, the discussion is missing the point. Technology is not only here to stay but will continue to accelerate. The real question is how to best harness technology’s benefits to improve lives without sacrificing irreplaceable human interaction where necessary. Something to think about!