Speech is one of the most important skills we learn, and speech-language pathologists (SLPs) work to bring communication to all. SLPs work with patients of all ages and in different clinical settings and provide solutions to communication barriers.
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Learn more about medical speech pathology and what you need to know when becoming a speech-language pathologist below.
What Is a Medical Speech Language Pathologist?
Medical speech-language pathologists diagnose and treat a variety of speech-related issues related to:
- Feeding and swallowing
- Social communication
- Speech sounds
Medical SLPs work with individuals from all walks of life, including those affected by chronic diseases or neurological events like brain damage, cancer, or stroke. By examining patients, medical SLPs create individualized treatment plans that focus on solving communication barriers.
It’s no surprise that the healthcare system is a demanding and fast-paced environment for medical SLPs and those working in acute care can expect to see a wide range of individuals and problems throughout their careers.
There are several specialty areas within the healthcare setting where the services of medical SLPs are needed, including:
- Acute care
- Inpatient rehabilitation
- Long-term care
- Outpatient clinics
- Pediatric hospitals
Medical SLPs function as critical members of healthcare teams in these settings, working with other medical professionals to execute care plans with every sort of individual, including premature infants, the elderly, sufferers of chronic diseases, and victims of traumatic accidents.
What Do Acute Care Speech Language Pathologists Do?
For acute care speech-language pathologists, practices are markedly different than for those who practice therapeutic care in other settings. Hospital patients come in with complex and often life-threatening medical issues that require decisive intervention from a combined critical care team, including a licensed SLP. Other members of that team will include surgeons, internists, nurses, and other specialists.
Medical SLPs working in hospitals must be familiar with medical terminology and patient care procedures to function effectively in that environment. The role of a speech-language pathologist in a hospital is to serve as a specialty resource for the doctors managing patient needs with swallowing, speech, and language disorders. Those patients may be experiencing issues from a variety of causes, including:
- Head injury
- Respiratory system issues
- Traumatic injury
The SLP must make a diagnosis rapidly and then recommend treatments based on their findings, which may range from surgery to long-term therapy. SLPs will interpret X-rays, CT scans, and videofluoroscopic images in conjunction with radiologists and other medical imaging specialists.
Working in the NICU as an Acute Care SLP
There is a specialized niche of SLP practice working in pediatric or neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) with children and newborns. The challenges in those settings are magnified by the fact that most NICU patients can’t communicate or understand instructions from the SLP.
Pediatric unit SLPs work with patients from birth to 18 years of age. The disorders in this population vary considerably from the disorders commonly found among elderly acute care patients. Pediatric and NICU SLPs face problems that stem from congenital disabilities, disease, and trauma, including:
- Cleft lip/palate
- Craniofacial anomalies
- Dental malocclusion
- Neurologic disease
Working as an SLP in a Long-Term Care Setting
Once patients are out of immediate danger, the role of the SLP in the healthcare environment shifts into more traditional long-term treatment. SLPs working in rehabilitation, long-term care settings, or outpatient clinics conduct follow-up treatment with patients to help them regain their speech, language, and swallowing abilities.
Teaching Patients How to Swallow Safely
The primary role of the SLP as patients shift into long-term care scenarios is to minimize the risks associated with dysphagia management or being able to swallow safely. Surgical treatment is rare in such cases, although the SLP may recommend surgery to bypass the pharynx and oral cavity in extreme cases. Most of the time, various muscular and postural therapies are used instead. SLPs consult with dietitians to help create healthy diets that consist of food that the patient can easily swallow.
Recovering Speech Capacity
Recovering speech capacity is also an important part of rehabilitation and long-term care. Although the most common causes of these problems are neurological, SLPs can devise speech treatments to help.
These strategies help reduce the impairment through repetition and retraining and provide alternative communication strategies that do not require complex motor functions in the vocal tract. Melodic intonation therapies, for example, take advantage of the fact that some aphasic patients have greater success singing words than speaking them.
Pediatric Medical Speech Pathology
Dysphagia, or the inability to swallow, can be a common childhood problem and many speech pathologists work with babies and children in long-term therapy settings.
The process of teaching children how to cope with swallowing disorders is more complex than other patients.
The SLP may focus more on behavioral intervention as a teaching technique, using psychological principles to mold patient eating and chewing habits. Or they might use postural techniques to ease swallowing, including altering the head and neck position or positioning the entire body in a reclining position. Health professionals may also make dietary modifications to feed the patient foods that are easier to swallow.
Other common strategies employed in pediatric SLP treatment are:
- Pacing strategies, which involve alternating the intake of food and drink
- Oral and motor treatment to stimulate the jaw and pharyngeal muscles
- The creation of prosthetics to reform malformed jaw or palate structures
- As a last resort, feeding tubes are sometimes used to inject sustenance directly into the digestive tract
Pursuing a Career as a Medical Speech Pathologist
Pursuing a career in medical speech pathology is a great way to work in the medical field and help individuals from all walks of live.
If you’re wondering how to become a medical SLP, understanding the education requirements is a great place to start. To pursue a career as a medical SLP, the education requirements you will need to complete include:
- A bachelor’s degree in communication sciences and disorders or a related field
- A master’s degree in speech-language pathology
- A fellowship
- A licensing exam
In addition to your education requirements, there are also SLP certifications one can pursue to further their career as an SLP. You can receive certification through the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, for example, that offers increased opportunities for employment, mobility, career advancement, professional credibility, and more.
Career Opportunities, Outlook, and Salary
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for SLPs is $80,480 per year, and SLP employment is projected to grow 25% between 2019 and 2029, which is much faster than the average for all occupations.
A career as a medical speech pathologist can be an excellent fit for those who can think on their feet and problem-solve collaboratively. There’s rarely a dull moment with frequent patient turnover and new cases every day.
2020 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary figures for SLPs represent national data not school specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed August 2021.
Start Your Medical Speech Pathology Career
If you’re ready to start a fulfilling career helping others, it’s time to find the right medical speech-language pathology program. Whether you already hold an undergraduate degree in a related field or are a graduate looking to change your career, a master’s degree in communicative sciences and disorders can prepare you for a rewarding career as a medical SLP.
Visit our career center to learn more about careers for speech pathologists.