The popularity of telehealth technology is revolutionizing the way Waikato District Health Board Speech Language Therapists deliver care to rural patients in need of vital treatment to help them communicate and lead more positive lives.
The Waikato DHB has ten Speech Language Therapists (SLT) based in Hamilton, providing a comprehensive service covering the entire Waikato region, with some travelling to provide weekly outpatient clinics in Te Kuiti, Thames and Tokoroa.
Speech Language Therapist Leisha Davies says the team treat a wide range of patients with swallowing, voice, speech and language difficulties caused by stroke and neuro degenerative conditions such as motor neurone, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. Some patients require only short-term treatment, while others need ongoing support from the service over a period of years as their disease progresses.
She says the arrival of telehealth technology delivered via a patient’s smartphone, tablet, computer or a hospital mobile televisual unit means the team can now save on travel time and deliver more regular, sometimes even daily therapy to patients in need, providing improved continuity of care.
“We generally meet patients in person for their first consultation but will then offer them the option to use telehealth for future consultations” says Leisha. “Patients love it, especially those with poor mobility or who live many hours from the hospital, as it allows them the convenience of being able to dial in for a consultation from home or work via their smartphone, tablet or home computer”.
Leisha Davies says 40% of her consultations are now conducted using telehealth; the rate is currently 12.3% for the SLT department overall and growing.
“While patients will generally receive weekly treatments of 30-60 minutes, with telehealth it’s now significantly easier to schedule more intensive daily sessions for each patient lasting 10-15 minutes, which research shows helps cement their speech gains and confidence” she says. “We have even used the mobile Telehealth carts in our rural hospitals which can be wheeled to a patient’s bedside for intensive speech therapy”.
She says telehealth also ensures patients are matched to an SLT who specializes in the particular therapy they require.
"I specialize in voice therapy, so although one of my colleagues will conduct the weekly clinic in Thames when a patient needed specialist voice therapy, I can then use telehealth at other times to manage the on-going care of that patient” she says.
The SLT team says while some patients still prefer face to face consultations, most are embracing the benefits of telehealth and cope well with the technological demands, even from home.
“With voice therapy, sound quality and clarity is clearly very important and for the vast majority of consultations there have been no issues” says Leisha. “When patients use a computer, there are sometimes a few sound problems but these have been overcome by the patient’s use of a headset to minimize feedback”.
Andrew Panckhurst from New Zealand’s Telehealth Resource Centre says the Waikato SLT team has embraced the use of telehealth technology and their patients will benefit from it.
“Leisha in particular is really leading the way on the delivery of speech language therapy via telehealth and it’s something we would encourage other health professionals to investigate and adopt as a means of improving care and outcomes for their rural patients” says Andrew.
The Waikato DHB Speech Language Therapy team is enthusiastic about future use of telehealth technology for local patients and believe it could also work well in the rest home environment.