SLPs Provide Telehealth during COVID-19 Pandemic
As part of the degree plan for the Master of Science in Speech-Language Pathology (SLP) Program, and in compliance with standards set by the national accrediting body, students are required to complete clinical hours prior to graduation. The current COVID-19 pandemic, and accompanying social distancing guidelines, presented a challenge to SLP students and faculty, who traditionally met these requirements through in-person sessions with clients, either at clinical sites across the community or the program’s Speech and Hearing Clinic.
As social distancing guidelines became stricter, the program’s faculty, as well as the off-campus practicum coordinator, Mrs. Gloria Macias-DeFrance, met to discuss options to ensure that students, particularly those graduating this spring, could complete their required hours. The team decided to implement telemedicine, using online platforms such as Zoom, to continue providing services. The quick transition, over a period of only a few weeks, was initially difficult for faculty, students, and their clients, none of whom had prior experience in telehealth.
“For the last 15 years, leaders in the speech-language pathology (SLP) field have been asking for modernization of services. Yet, only one-quarter of SLP programs across the nation incorporate telepractice into their curriculum,” said Dr. Amelia Rau, clinical assistant professor of Speech-Language Pathology. “We are being very transparent; we didn’t know much about telepractice in our program before mid-March.”
Despite the initial challenges, students and faculty moved quickly to pair 21 first-year students and 10 second-year students with their clients and to begin training them how to deliver services online. The remaining second-year students are still able to complete clinical hours at partner sites in the community, including hospitals, clinics, and VA homes, following the strict guidelines set by the CDC and the partner institutions, including the use of personal protective equipment.
“We are very grateful to our community partners who, despite the current pandemic situation, have kept their doors open so that our students can complete their clinical hours,” said Macias-DeFrance.
Macias-DeFrance added that, despite the challenging situation, SLP students have shown incredible resiliency under stress.
“Our Miners have adapted well,” she said. “Many of our students have already completed their minimum number of hours required toward certification and are busy finishing up the semester and other course requirements as (second-year students) prepare for graduation. These are exciting times for our students, and their newly acquired skill of telehealth will make them more marketable.”
While students were busy preparing their home environments for the online sessions with their clients, faculty were working behind the scenes to identify additional resources to guide them, including current research articles and best practices in the field of teletherapy. Thus far, the approach has been successful, and has become a great learning experience for all involved.
“We’ve gone through this whole process together. Every time there is a win, we celebrate as a team,” said Rau. “There are many people involved in this effort; including Dr. Benigno Valles, Mrs. Deena Peterson, and Mrs. Gloria Macias-DeFrance. Other faculty members are also offering online services, such as Dr. Pat Lara, who oversees transgender voice services,” she added.
The SLP team is carefully collecting and assessing the experiences of all involved via surveys, reflective journals and focus groups in their commitment to understand the lessons learned. They plan to continue graduate clinical training in telepractice for a portion of clients unable to attend sessions in person, even post lifting of COVID-19 restrictions.
“We clearly see signs of value added in the early data,” said Rau. “There are some incredible communication scenarios that can occur while connected to a client at home. For example, a child who is excited to show the student clinician their pet on the screen suddenly becomes vocal,” said Rau.
Students report they are feeling more comfortable with the technology and echo faculty sentiments regarding their marketability, although most admit they miss interacting with their clients in person.
“Telehealth is not something that I would have considered doing in graduate school, but I’m grateful that I have the support needed to carry out treatment in this modality,” said Jacob Deslongchamps, a first-year SLP student. “This experience has taught me that treatment does not always have to be in person, and that I can provide a skilled service from the comfort of home.”
First-year SLP student Erin Hendricks agreed with Deslongchamps, mentioning that she had a “tidal wave of emotions” when they were first told about having to make the transition.
“The most difficult part was having to redesign the way I approach therapy. My main concern was being able to provide quality services that addressed the needs of my client,” she said. “I absolutely miss the face-to-face contact and feeling of being in the clinic. With that said, I am grateful that we live in a time in which technology can be utilized in a way that enhances the lives of our clients. I believe telehealth is here to stay, and I would absolutely welcome the opportunity to continue building my expertise in this area.”
First-year student Heather Ramirez mentioned that she also foresees a continued need for teleservices, particularly in underserviced and rural areas.
“This experience has really opened my eyes to the fact that not many graduate programs prepare us for teletherapy, and in many rural communities it may be an option,” she said. “I think the positive takeaway from this whole experience is that it can definitely make you more marketable and effective as a provider who can help more individuals and their families facing communication difficulties.”
For additional information about the Speech-Language Pathology Program, please visit: https://www.utep.edu/chs/slp/