A La Trobe University academic says that children born prematurely and with very low birth weights need speech-language pathologists to play a greater role in their treatment within neonatal intensive care units (NICUs).
Dr Bernice Mathisen, Associate Professor of Speech Pathology, La Trobe Rural Health School, says that many people would be surprised to know that some of the most challenging work that speech pathologists are involved with comes before children can talk.
‘Supporting premature infants through the tube-feeding process and subsequent rehabilitation are tasks requiring advanced postgraduate education as well as extensive clinical mentoring and peer-group consultation.
‘Speech-language pathologists have responsibilities for developing optimal communication, feeding and swallowing outcomes for premature infants in Australian hospitals.’
Dr Mathisen says that currently within Australian NICUs speech-language pathologists are consulting therapists, rather than core members of the team.
‘Typically at the moment speech-language pathologists work in NICUs for an average of seven hours a week. Our research shows that because of this limited role there is not a lot of opportunity for efficacy and effectiveness of speech pathologists during major developments in a preterm baby’s early life.
Professor Mathisen headed a La Trobe University research team investigating the current role and procedures of speech pathologists in NICUs. The team was also tasked to examine if there is a case for them becoming core members of the NICU team, rather than part time consultants.
‘There is emerging evidence to support suitably educated and experienced speech-language pathologists becoming integral members of the NICU team. They would have responsibility for developing optimal communication, feeding and swallowing outcomes that would greatly improve infant communication skills and their future educational development.’
‘With more preterm infants “graduating” from NICUs it is time to rethink the role of speech-language pathologists in the field and to make it easier for specialists to access educational opportunities inside and outside of the hospital setting.’