May is Better Hearing and Speech Month, a time to acknowledge Speech Language Pathologists (SLPs) and audiologists. Like other healthcare workers in the past few months, the SLP team at Valley’s main campus has had to overcome some major obstacles related to COVID-19.
Speech therapy is not likely the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about COVID-19. However, SLPs are directly involved in the care and recovery process for many patients with COVID-19. This is largely due to the impact of respiratory status (breathing) on swallowing and protecting the airway from food/liquid. Aspiration (when material such as food or liquid passes into the lungs) can cause a number of respiratory complications, including aspiration pneumonia, which can be fatal. Assessment and management of swallowing disorders (dysphagia) is a large part of the work that SLPs do in acute care at Valley. Patients with respiratory symptoms, such as those commonly seen with COVID-19, are at a higher risk of aspirating food and liquid. This risk is further increased with effects of long-term intubation (use of a breathing tube), also frequently seen with COVID-19.
In the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, Valley’s SLP team recognized the importance of providing swallowing services to these patients, while also preserving personal protective equipment (PPE) and keeping staff safe. To meet this goal, the SLP team reached out to colleagues at healthcare facilities within UW Medicine and around the country and world. The hours of collaboration and research resulted in the development of specific guidelines to facilitate identification of patients needing SLP services and appropriate frequency of services to protect staff and conserve PPE. With a significant reduction in outpatient SLP services due to Washington’s Stay at Home Order, our outpatient SLP staff enthusiastically provided invaluable assistance to inpatient care.
Initially, there was also a question as to what type of PPE was appropriate to protect staff as swallow assessment and treatment typically involves close contact with oral and pulmonary secretions. The SLP team first turned to our colleagues in Great Britain, who published the Royal College of Speech Language Therapists Guidance on PPE and COVID-19 on March 20, 2020. Shortly thereafter, the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA) hosted two teleconference town hall meetings to provide additional input from SLP leaders around the country, before publishing their own guidance on PPE with COVID-19. During this process, Valley’s Command Center was very receptive to feedback from the SLP team, modifying their policies as more information became available.
As Valley continues the battle with COVID-19, the SLP team will continue to do our part, maintaining a balance between conservation of PPE, protecting staff, and most importantly, providing quality patient care.
To learn more about the profession of Speech Language Pathology, please follow the link below:
By Hannah Humphrey, CCC-SLP, and Nick Borsenik, CCC-SLP, Valley Rehabilitation Services