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The Role of an Acute Care Speech Pathologist

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Speech-language pathologists, or SLPs, treat patients with communication and swallowing conditions. Some patients have speech or voice disorders, needing therapy to help them understand and/or develop language skills. Other patients have conditions that make it difficult for them to swallow, needing help to strengthen their muscles to make swallowing easier. SLPs working in acute care may treat both needs, but they have slightly different duties from those working in general practice.

Managing the Needs of Acute Care Patients

Patients in acute care may need SLP intervention because of specific medical problems caused by issues such as strokes, respiratory disorders or head injuries. Rather than working with patients for long periods, SLPs may only consult with people for a few days or weeks. They may treat patients daily or multiple times a day for short periods, depending on how patients can tolerate treatments. In some cases, they help patients communicate with medical staff; in others, they start to treat specific problems.

Evaluating Acute Care Patients

The first responsibility of SLPs is to evaluate patients and to diagnose their therapy needs. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), 35 percent of patients treated by SLPs in acute care have suffered from strokes. ASHA's figures also show that acute care SLPs treat 77 percent of their patients for swallowing disorders. SLPs assess the extent of the damage or problem and then draw up an initial treatment plan. If patients have swallowing issues, they may run diagnostic videofluoroscopic exams.

Acute Care SLP Treatments

Acute care SLPs use various short-term therapies. If patients' conditions have caused speech difficulties, they may use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) therapies and devices to give patients an immediate way to communicate. In some cases, they use AAC techniques to help patients who had speech or language problems before they came into the acute care unit. In this role, they provide communication solutions rather than therapies. SLPs working on swallowing problems teach patients how to regain swallowing capabilities. They also educate patients and their families so that they understand the problems they face.

Acute Care Discharge Planning

After evaluating patients and beginning treatments, SLPs monitor the effects of therapy and patient progress. Therapists assigned to acute care facilities typically only treat patients for the duration of their stay, although some may see them after discharge in outpatient clinics. At this stage, most SLPs prepare their patients for discharge, drawing up plans that recommend longer-term treatment options and rehabilitation programs for the future.

Qualifications, Licensing and Certification

SLPs usually have master's degrees that include classroom training in speech-language pathology and clinical experience. Recommended undergraduate subjects include sciences, psychology, linguistics, math or communication sciences. Most states require SLPs to have a license. Requirements vary from state to state but typically include a master's from an accredited program and supervised clinical experience. Some states accept ASHA's certificate of clinical competence in speech-language pathology credential as part of the licensing process.


Carol Finch has been writing technology, careers, business and finance articles since 2000, tapping into her experience in sales, marketing and technology consulting. She has a bachelor's degree in Modern Languages, a Chartered Institute of Marketing.certificate and unofficial tech and gaming geek status with her long-suffering friends and family.

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