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Communication Disorders Team Launches Telepractice Recruitment Effort


Telepractice Team
PHOTO: From left: Nerissa Hall, Michelle Boisvert, Mary Andrianopoulos.

Mary Andrianopoulos, Associate Professor of Communication Disorders, along with doctoral candidates Michelle Boisvert and Nerissa Hall at the UMass Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences, have launched a recruitment effort targeted at some 300 rural Massachusetts school districts. The research conducted by Andrianopoulos, Boisvert, and Hall aims to provide equal access to speech-language pathology (SLP) services for individuals irrespective of geographical location, disability, or socioeconomic status via live, secure video teleconferencing over the Internet, known as telepractice.

The researchers, in partnership with videoconferencing giant Cisco Systems, are recruiting schools in preparation for submitting a Rural-Urban Sustainability-Distance Learning Technology (RUS-DLT) grant application to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The team envisions extending the telepractice services that are currently being provided on a local level, to schools on a national level through a campus-based high-tech hub to support the remote delivery of these services. They are signing up qualifying school districts that are in need of SLP services for the 2012-13 school year. To qualify for services, districts must meet a “rurality” standard, have some basic computing equipment, as well as access to high-speed Internet service and be willing to dedicate a staff member to coordinate the program on-site.

Telepractice is rapidly gaining national attention due to the critical shortage of speech-language pathologists and special education teachers who work with high-need students nationwide. The shortage is most prevalent in rural areas and the implementation of telepractice has been proven to be a viable, evidence-based and cost-effective practice for schools to receive these needed services.

Telepractice, also known as telemedicine and telehealth, can significantly improve access to services for students with special needs, in particular students with communication disabilities, says Boisvert. Research conducted by Boisvert and colleagues revealed successful delivery of intervention services to individuals with autism via telepractice. In fact, her empirical findings yielded no statistically significant differences between speech-language services that were provided on-site and in-person compared to those services using telepractice as the intervention delivery method. In addition, adds Hall, initial research findings also support that telepractice has been beneficial for those who require assistive technologies as well as those who have complex communication needs resulting from neurodevelopmental disabilities.

“The number of children in the United States diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder has increased and is now reported to be as high as three to six cases per 1,000 children,” Boisvert notes. “Our research supports that telepractice is an effective vehicle for delivering evidence-based interventions to improve long-term outcomes for these students.”

Boisvert and Hall note that rural school districts can benefit from a variety of services offered by the team, be they one-on-one, direct services, or in-direct services as well as professional development for existing staff.

Andrianopoulos’ team demonstrated the efficacy of these services – and established a model for future collaborations – during a pilot project last year in two rural schools. The group’s findings showed that quality-controlled protocols work well for students, their families and the school.

“Once the clinician, child and family have established a personal connection via telepractice, ongoing therapy sessions allow for more consistent services and evidence-based practice as well as a reduction in travel time for everyone,” Boisvert says. Further, with frequent quality assurance assessments, “students achieve comparable progress through telepractice as they do when a session is conducted face-to-face.”

Count Timothy Merritt, principal of Sunderland Elementary School, one of the school districts involved in the telepractice research study, among the team’s staunchest advocates.

“There are some hurdles – particularly around the impression that an exclusively on-site experience is always preferable,” Merritt states. “I shared that skepticism when I first signed off on the study. I’m not convinced of that position anymore.” Merritt adds, “Our experience here in Sunderland has been extremely positive. I am very pleased with all aspects of their work. I'm confident that my students, parents, and faculty would offer the same opinion.” In fact, Merritt was so impressed with the group’s work that his school contracted the Center for Speech, Language and Hearing to provide telepractice services for nearly 20 students while their own specialist was out on medical leave.

The group is equally sought for their expertise in Active Consultation, a means of providing real-time feedback to clinicians-in-training. Hall, who specializes in this field, recently presented her research findings at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) annual professional conference, held in San Diego, California in November, 2011. During a one-hour oral presentation, she and Boisvert reported the results of a pilot study that examined how Active Consultation can be used to implement strategies for individuals who use Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices.

“We’ve established a training model for clinicians on how to use these devices, which can have such a high learning curve,” Hall notes. “By providing real-time feedback, we’re able to deliver instruction and guidance without having to interrupt the therapy session.”

Andrianopoulos’ team continues to garner national recognition for their work in telepractice, which remains a relatively new and groundbreaking specialty in speech-language pathology. In addition to their presentations at the recent ASHA conference, the Telepractice Research Team (including Andrianopoulos, Boisvert, and Hall) recently had an article accepted for publication. Titled Multi-faceted Implementation of Telepractice to Service Individuals with Autism, and scheduled to be published in the International Journal of Social Sciences, the article addresses how telepractice can be used to provide a range of SLP services to children with autism spectrum disorders.

The team is bringing all their expertise to bear in preparation for the RUS-DLT grant application. Although the final details of the application will not be released until later in January, 2012, Andrianopoulos and her doctoral researchers have already spent the past year working with Cisco, the OGCA and Research Development offices and members within the School of Public Health and Health Sciences at UMass Amherst in preparation for what is sure to be a complex, multi-faceted, and multi-partner submission.

Andrianopoulos and her team recognize that their level of success hinges on the continued growth and sustainability of the telepractice practice program in communication disorders at UMass Amherst, and in part, on their success in recruiting rural schools that need their services for the RUS-DLT grant and other grant initiatives.

“We believe that this research and service delivery model currently is at a grass roots level at UMass Amherst; however, we are very optimistic and encouraged by the growth and development of our telehealth and telepractice program in communication disorders here at UMass Amherst to date. We have received much attention and a positive response from school districts and other medical facilities around the country and world, who want to participate in this innovative delivery model offered at a research-based state university by experts and specialists in the field,” adds Andrianopoulos.

Interested individuals can contact the UMass Telepractice Research Team at 413-545-0551 or by email at umasstelepractice@comdis.umass.edu. More information about the RUS-DLT grant can be obtained at: www.umass.edu/doegrants/rus_dlt.html.

 

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