On May 19, my nephew graduated from the University of Vermont's College of Nursing and Health Sciences as an athletic trainer. This was a proud moment for him, his family and especially for me as his aunt and as his dean. Although a college graduation is an expected accomplishment for many, for my nephew, who was diagnosed with a progressive bilateral sensorineural hearing loss at 16 months, it was a remarkable academic and personal success. His hearing loss was moderate at first, but he was profoundly deaf when he had his cochlear implant about 10 years later. When my nephew walked across the stage for me to give him his diploma on graduation day, I couldn't help but think about how proud I was, not just of him but of the audiologists and speech-language pathologists who worked collaboratively over the past several years to support his success as a communicator and as a contributor to his community. My nephew—one of only 11 certified athletic trainers in the country who are deaf—and our entire family are strong advocates for supporting and enhancing the connections between audiologists and SLPs.
Our ability as two professions to make a difference in the integrated and coordinated care of people with communication disorders is nothing to take lightly. And it seems that the public wants to understand the importance and value of our connection. Recently, ASHA launched the Identify the Signs campaign, a bilingual multimedia effort to educate the public about the warning signs of communication disorders and the importance of early detection.
In one of my media interviews about the campaign, an interesting question was posed: "Dr. Prelock, can you explain the difference between an audiologist and a speech-language pathologist?" It was an important question for me to reflect on as I explained the focus of our two professions. I started with a broad response, explaining that audiologists specialize in the prevention and diagnosis of hearing and balance problems and also treat hearing disorders, including fitting hearing aids. SLPs specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of speech, language and swallowing disorders. But it doesn't stop there, I explained to the media: Our professions are inextricably linked. For example, as audiologists identify hearing loss in a young child they collaborate with the family to define a treatment plan that includes a referral to an SLP. Similarly, when SLPs identify a speech and language problem, they often refer a child to an audiologist to ensure hearing is intact.
And the connections continue. Audiologists treat patients with a wide variety of symptoms related to concussions, like dizziness and balance issues. SLPs provide the support for the likely communication and cognitive challenges that may occur as a result of a brain injury. Both address communication issues that can result from concussion and may impair a person's ability to live independently. In the case of cochlear implants, audiologists help determine candidacy for implantation and activate the speech processor following surgery. SLPs collaborate with their audiology colleagues to provide rehabilitation services that include auditory training and speech reading. Both support the needs of the patient and the patient's family and ensure that communication is enhanced.
My reflection on the early warning signs media tour reminded me, too, of the educational foundation we share—from our undergraduate courses in speech and hearing science to graduate courses in aural/audiologic rehabilitation—and the clinical focus we share—from prevention to assessment and intervention across the lifespan. We audiologists and SLPs represent a true interprofessional effort to educate students side-by-side and to model interprofessional collaborative practice, ensuring that our patients have access to effective communication.
Our research connections are also noteworthy, as communication sciences and disorders scientists collaborate to understand the nature of hearing, speech, language, swallowing and balance. They not only investigate the biological, physiological and cognitive processes of communication, they also explore the impact of psychological, social and other factors. Further, they translate what they learn from their basic science research to develop an evidence base for diagnosing and treating individuals with speech, language, hearing, swallowing and balance problems.
Our public policy agenda is an additional area of shared interest. At the federal level, audiologists and SLPs are advocating for equitable Medicare reimbursement and comprehensive benefits. At both the federal and state levels, we are addressing budget cut impacts, increased paperwork and accountability expectations. Medicaid and private health insurance reimbursement, as well as engagement in the benefits of the Affordable Care Act, are priorities for all of us. Through our combined efforts and resources, we are making a difference.
With all of the obvious connections between audiologists and SLPs, I hope that in our efforts to define ourselves as individual professions, we do not forget why our link to one another is so critical, particularly in this time of education and health care reform. Individually, each of our professions has something to offer, but together we add incredible value. The magic in our connection is our inextricable link in understanding, assessing and treating speech, language, hearing, swallowing and balance disorders, while advocating for the needs of our clients.