A Memorial linguistics professor, a researcher from Vancouver, several local speech-language pathologists and a small but extremely useful machine came together on the St. John’s campus in March for a workshop that could have significant, rapid benefits for speech therapy patients in the community.
The speech-language pathologists or SLPs were on campus to learn how to make use of a portable ultrasound that offers live images of the tongue in real time. When they hold the transducer under their chin and speak, those with speech disorders get immediate visual feedback on how their tongue is placed or moves in the mouth when they articulate sounds.
Dr. Yvan Rose, a phonology and language development researcher in Linguistics, purchased the $45,000 piece of equipment through the Canada Fund for Innovation and Industrial Research and Innovation Fund of Newfoundland and Labrador. However, in addition to its significance to research, he soon realized that it could be put to good use in the larger community. After an enthusiastic response to the idea from local SLPs, he invited a leader in developing such applications to St. John’s.
Penelope Bacsfalvi has been a practicing SLP for many years herself, but since 2001 has also been involved in developing methods to apply ultrasound technology to clinical practice in her doctoral studies at the School of Audiology and Speech Science, University of British Columbia.
“In my research, I look at different treatment methods to see what’s yielding results,” she explained. In her practice, she has an opportunity to see those results firsthand.
For example, she recently worked with a 10-year-old girl who was unable to enunciate K, G, or R sounds an inability that had a negative impact on her socially and emotionally. While she had been through many years of speech therapy, it wasn’t until the ultrasound machine offered the girl visual feedback that her speech improved.
“Within three months, she was able to learn all three of those sounds,” Ms. Bacsfalvi reported. “This girl is so happy with her progress.”
However, while the ultrasound is a useful tool, “it’s not magic,” she cautioned. “Most patients will tell you that it’s very hard work.” She added that the technology won’t supplant the work of SLPs, who will still have to rely on their broad-based knowledge to use the tool.
In her workshop, Ms. Bacsfalvi offered the 16 SLPs from the Eastern Health Board a day of theory and familiarization with the equipment. On the second day, they were able to observe Ms. Bacsfalvi work with three speech therapy patients, one adult and two children, who volunteered their time and tongues.
Now these SLPs are the first outside of BC with the know-how to use this technology in their clinical practice, and Ms. Bacsfalvi has promised long distance support when needed while they build their skills.
What the SLPs in Newfoundland and Labrador currently lack, however, is the machine, so Dr. Rose has committed to lending them his so that it can be of value to the community.
“In the future, this will have the potential for gathering data for my research,” he explained, “but right now, the goal is to give these professionals access to this ultrasound scanner so that they can use it to directly benefit people who need it.”