In January and February 2020, USAHS’s second inaugural cohort of Master of Science in Speech-Language Pathology (MS-SLP) students were working in clinical and school settings, getting all the clinical practicum hours they needed to graduate from the program in August. But in March, the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. Our students would no longer be able to complete their practica onsite—but they still needed their 375 clock hours of direct patient contact to graduate. Our faculty had to innovate to solve for this unprecedented situation while maintaining the highest quality of learning and ensuring that their students could graduate on time.
Launching a Virtual Clinic during a Pandemic
The MS-SLP faculty is constantly evolving the curriculum to stay in the forefront of technology and virtual learning and had already conceived the idea of creating a virtual SLP clinic in which students would provide speech-language services to a wide variety of clients as a community service. Clinical educators (CEs) from the onsite settings would mentor students alone or in pairs, guiding them as they worked with each client over Zoom.
Due to the COVID-19 crisis the need for student clinical hours accelerated its debut thanks to SLP faculty quickly adapting and developing an early start to the clinic using teletherapy delivery.
MS-SLP Program Director Dr. Kathy Wheat led the proposal and the University quickly recognized the advantage this would provide our students and immediately granted funding to pay the CEs for working in this unusual capacity which created tremendous value for the program. The MS-SLP faculty was able to tap into their expanded network of CEs, who helped to quickly identify about 50 clients from all over Texas who wanted to participate. Amber Lemmon, MA, CCC-SLP, the Clinical Coordinator of the MS-SLP program in Dallas, coordinates the clinic with guidance from Stacey Pavelko, PhD, CCC-SLP, FNAP, the program’s Assistant Director.
Providing a Community Service – B Corporation status
The clinic launched on June 22. It mainly supports an underserved population of clients who live in rural areas outside of Dallas, have difficulty traveling, or lack insurance coverage for SLP treatments. Some clients don’t want to travel because they are at high risk for complications of COVID-19.
The clients span a range of ages, from children to older adults. Many have articulation, intelligibility, and voice issues. Some are working on communication-related social skills, while others have post-stroke disorders, progressive diseases, and/or swallowing problems. One client communicates using an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device.
As a certified B Corporation, USA is recognized for our commitment to social impact and measuring it, so providing the pro-bono treatments for the under-served community in Dallas is a win for everyone – the students, our faculty and our clients in the community. It also helps create relationships in-market for the students as they finish their coursework and graduate on-time during the pandemic, reinforcing USA’s unwavering commitment to our students’ education.
Lemmon says that each student is working with six or seven different clients of different ages, so they are gaining broad experience. “The diversity mimics an actual SLP clinic,” she says.
Giving Students Practice in Virtual Care Delivery
The virtual clinic is yet another virtual innovation where USA leads in its field allowing students to practice treating patients via a healthcare delivery mechanism that is the wave of the present—and the future. “Telehealth is here to stay,” Dr. Pavelko says. “Our students are able to gain experience working with clients while also practicing how to provide services through telehealth technologies.” She remarks, “Essentially, we’re using telepractice as a mechanism to train students on telepractice.”
Lemmon directs the clinic, while Dr. Pavelko, who is also based on the Dallas campus, oversees the program from behind the scenes. Their colleague, Maelyn Liedke, M.Ed., Senior Academic Program and Campus Operations Coordinator in Dallas, coordinates the technical aspects and client participation. Faculty coordinate with the Directors of SLP Clinical Education to ensure that students gain the knowledge, skills, and clinical hours they need to graduate on time.
How It Works
As preparation, students have completed coursework related to each speech-language disorder they will see in the virtual clinic. Then, in coordination with the clients and their clinical educators, students develop goals and weekly lesson plans. They may leverage resources from organizations that offer evidence-based activities, such as the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) and The Informed SLP. Or they may develop their own activities to do with the client.
Telepractice sessions with the student(s), client, and CE are 45 minutes long. They are followed by a 15-minute debrief between the student and clinical educator about what worked and what didn’t. The student and CE also have a mentor session weekly. Faculty are there to support students when they need it, such as when a client doesn’t respond well to teletherapy.
“Teletherapy doesn’t work for everyone,” Lemmon says. “Some clients have trouble concentrating or need caregiver support. But this can be positive—for example, students learn how to engage kids who are going under the table during the session. What can the student do differently to engage the child?”
A Win All Around
The virtual clinic will continue through the fall. The MS-SLP program hopes to continue the clinic even after life returns to normal. “Part of it will always be virtual because this improves client access so much,” Dr. Pavelko says. “It works well for the SLP program, which is a hybrid program. Our courses are virtual, and students travel to campus once per term for their residency week.” She says they would like to expand the clinic to include more adults who need virtual therapy because they are at high risk for COVID complications.
“It’s a win for everyone,” Lemmon says. “It gives students a leg up on telehealth. The clinical educators like it too; it’s more convenient. We’ve gotten good feedback from clinical educators on the students’ progress. And clients have reached out to give positive feedback to us.”
The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) offers a Master of Science in Speech-Language Pathology (MS-SLP). Designed for working students, the MS-SLP is an online program with four required on-campus residencies on either the USAHS Austin or Dallas campus. The program offers two intakes per year, in January and September. Prepare to make a difference in the lives of clients across the lifespan with a meaningful career in speech therapy!
The Master of Science in Speech-Language Pathology education program at the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences is a Candidate of Accreditation by the Council on Academic Accreditation in Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology (CAA) of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 2200 Research Boulevard, #310, Rockville, MD 20850, 800-498-2071 or 301-296-5700. Candidacy is a “preaccreditation” status with the CAA, awarded to developing or emerging programs for a maximum period of 5 years.
The candidacy status includes the MS-SLP program offered at Austin and Dallas, Texas locations.
For students with a bachelor’s degree in a field other than communications sciences and disorders (CSD) or SLP, we offer SLP leveling courses for completing the necessary pre-requisites to enter the graduate program.