Teletherapy – or telemedicine – has been around for some time. But the recent arrival of COVID-19 has led to a surge of activity for health care professionals from many disciplines. Faculty and students in The University of Tulsa’s Department of Communication Sciences & Disorders are among those who have embraced teletherapy in order to serve patients during this crisis.
Communication Sciences and Disorders has the largest number of patients in Oklahoma who attend an on-campus clinic. Indeed, the department has more patients than most graduate program clinics anywhere in the state.
“Over the past few years, our faculty have seen a few patients via teletherapy,” said Suzanne Stanton, the coordinator of TU’s Mary K. Chapman Speech and Hearing Clinic and the Chapman Clinical Assistant Professor of Speech-Language Pathology. “One such individual was a young adult who lived in rural Oklahoma and needed therapy to use her eye-gaze communication system. There was no one in her area with that specific expertise, so teletherapy sessions with one of our faculty members was the solution.”
In 2019, Professor Kris Foyil initiated a contract with Connects Academy to allow the department’s graduate students to work with practicing teletherapists in the community. Since then, each semester two students have been able to work with an experienced licensed teletherapist in her practice.
Rising to the challenge
With the COVD-19 crisis, Communication Sciences & Disorders students were forced to abruptly discontinue their externships and onsite clinical experiences. The Council on Academic Accreditation, however, sent out a notice to accredited programs stating that the standards for certification and completion of clinical hours would not change. As a result, the department had to find new ways for their students to satisfy those requirements in order to graduate on time in May.
“We are meeting the needs of our students in several ways,” Stanton noted. “And teletherapy has been a major asset to accomplish that goal.”
During the week of March 23-25, faculty began teletherapy evaluations to assist graduate students who had been pulled from hospital experiences. This included having members of TU’s Tulsa Aphasia Group participate in online aphasia evaluations with students using Zoom technology and following both state and federal guidelines for teletherapy. Stanton coordinated these evaluations, which allowed patients to get the services they needed and the department’s students to continue interacting with individuals.
“It was a quick turnaround to organize,” remarked Stanton, “but rewarding in so many ways. For instance, the patients we helped were isolated, and this taught them how to use new technology to foster social interactions in other situations and settings. One gentleman, for example, was able to use Zoom to talk with his grandson and son in Colorado.”
Simulations are the second way Communication Sciences & Disorders is meeting its students’ needs through digital technology. The benefit of such simulation is it allows no-risk practice in aspects of care that previously could only be experienced with patients in person.
Sarah Launchbaugh, a clinical assistant professor of speech-language pathology, has worked with other clinical faculty to organize simulated clinical experiences through Simucase. “By using Simucase’s digital learning platform,” Stanton observed, “our students are able to continue their clinical practica, even during the pandemic in a time of uncertainty in the world around us. It also gives them exposure to patient populations that are at times unavailable in our speech clinic due to low incidence of the disorders.”
Spurred on by the COVID-19 emergency, Communication Sciences & Disorders faculty are working with students to offer all clinic services via teletherapy soon. According to Stanton, “we are currently providing online resources for patients and their families, and we are reaching out to determine which patients have the ability to participate in teletherapy.”
Are you interested in a career as a speech-language pathologist? TU’s Communications Sciences & Disorders department has the pathways for you!