Lessons I Have Learned as a Speech Therapist
I’ve been a speech-language pathologist for 18 years after making a career change from working in the corporate telecommunications field for 15 years. It feels like it was just yesterday, sitting in one of my first communication disorders classes and my professor using so many acronyms. There was one in
particular that I needed some clarification on so I raised my hand and asked, “What does SLP stand for?” Can you imagine? I really asked that question! When she replied with a chuckle, my face turned a fiery red. Afterwards, my professor (who was also the department head) thanked me as she realized that she was speaking to us as seasoned professionals and was sure that I wasn’t the only
confused student. What a sense of relief! As I reflect on this and the many lessons I’ve learned (and continue to learn) over the years, I will share four that have had the most impact on my approach to speech therapy.
1. Communicate to your audience.
Just as my professor needed to adjust her lingo with her students, we must be mindful of overusing “SLPeze.” When speaking to patients, families, nurses, nursing assistants, dietary staff, and even doctors, use simple language and avoid using too many acronyms. For example, you may want to talk about “swallowing ” vs “dysphagia,” or “lips” vs “labial”, or “tongue” vs “lingual”. Always relate impairments and goals to functional tasks and activities that are relevant and meaningful to the patient whether it’s working on memory to help remember names of grandchildren or on chewing and swallowing exercises and strategies to help allow a patient to safely eat advanced textures. Another example of communicating effectively to your audience is when in-servicing nurses or nursing assistants on aspiration. It may surprise you, but every nurse or assistant may not know what aspiration is or how to minimize its risk. You should make adjustments in the complexity of language used on a case by case basis. In general, be simple and clear, be relevant, and foster interaction with the patient and be available to answer their questions.
2. Build rapport, be approachable and accessible.
Gather as much information possible about your patient prior to meeting them – medical history, social history, hobbies, likes/dislikes, etc. Connect with family members when appropriate and talk with staff. Make sure they have your contact information, and be sure to check your messages and respond in a timely manner. You want your patients and their families to know from day one that you will be approachable and accessible. Of equal importance, is your rapport with the facility staff. For example, nurses are under a lot of pressure and they can’t always immediately stop what they’re doing to address our concerns. Don’t interrupt them when they’re dispensing medications! Instead, at a convenient time, let them know how much you appreciate them and have a conversation about how to best communicate issues of varying urgency that arise. Being approachable and accessible to your patients, families, and the entire team, will promote effective teamwork and contribute to positive outcomes for your
3. Listen and Commit.
I was under the care of outstanding and competent physicians at one of the top cancer hospitals in New York. When I moved to California two years ago, I established care with an oncologist at another top hospital in Los Angeles and continued to receive superb, cutting edge care. There’s one big difference. My current oncologist makes me feel like I’m his only patient! I know he’s a busy man – he is principal investigator in clinical trial research, teaches, travels all over the world, AND is a husband and father. But for every appointment, he’s prepared and never appears rushed. He always greets me warmly and engages in conversation about family and work before addressing our plan of care, and carefully listens to my feedback and provides his ongoing expertise and support (he also responds to emails)! Whether you’re a doctor, nurse, teacher, or speech-language pathologist, commit and listen. Develop goals with the patient and family. Start every session with a friendly, kind greeting. Review their prior session and review the objectives for the current session. And be sure to listen. Have things changed? Do goals need to be revised to reflect changes in condition or patient’s desires? This is not an easy feat with all that we have to do but well worth the effort in order to provide our patients with the compassionate and competent care that they’ll always remember.
4. Tap into You.
We all have moments thinking “She’s so smart…I’ll never be as good…I’ll
never be able to… I feel like I don’t know much at all.” We’re human and we tend to compare ourselves to others and want to possess traits and qualities that we find appealing. However, it is important to explore and focus on what YOU can bring. Capitalize on your uniqueness and use your background, culture, life experiences, and personality to develop relationships with people. Do
you like to sing/play an instrument? Sing to your dementia patients. Play guitar? Teach your student to follow directions on how to play guitar. Play tennis?Generate a naming/word-finding task based on tennis vocabulary. Lived in the same neighborhood? Talk about people, landmarks, parks, and your favorite restaurants. There is always something about you that can help foster that
connection which will help the patient better respond to therapy.
You have chosen an amazing profession helping people but it sure does come with its challenges. You may stumble many times and, as a result, will continue to grow in your clinical competence. Weave in those personal qualities that will set you apart from others. Embrace the challenges, be resourceful,
learn from your mistakes, ask for help when needed, never stop learning, and share your expertise. Above all, always remember why you chose this field. You will make a difference in so many lives!