Speech therapists in great demand

Wendy Ng

Language is imperative to living, learning and working. It can be expressed in speech, sign language or writing, or using computerised communication devices.

Language or speech disorders can be treated by speech-language pathologists, informally known as speech therapists.

Speech-language pathology and audiology are among the hottest professions in the United States, according to employment growth projections set out by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics in its Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2002-03 Edition.

The bureau said the number of positions for speech pathologists in the US was expected to climb 45 per cent between 2000 and 2010, and the number of posts for audiologists by 39 per cent.

A similar situation exists in Hong Kong, where the profession has been growing since it was introduced about 20 years ago. Speech therapists in Hong Kong trained overseas until 1988, when the University of Hong Kong introduced a bachelor's degree in speech and hearing sciences.

'At that time, we were the only academic institution in Asia to provide such a course,' says Lorinda Kwan-Chen Li-ying, clinical instructor in the university's division of speech and hearing sciences.

Courses at institutions in Malaysia and Japan followed.

There are 200 speech therapists in Hong Kong, compared with 5,000 in England and 4,000 in Australia.

'In our estimate, a sixth of the population will need speech therapy. There is a definite shortfall of professionals to meet the vast need,' says Mrs Kwan-Chen.

Speech therapists work in hospitals, private clinics and schools to help people suffering communication disorders.

Patients may be mentally retarted, or have suffered strokes or head injuries. They may have Down's Syndrome or learning disabilities, or battle with voice, fluency or swallowing disorders.

Besides therapy, speech therapists may be involved in research or may teach at universities.

'Speech therapists need to be very flexible,' Mrs Kwan-Chen says. 'They have to work closely with a mixed group: patients, family members, teachers, caregivers and even doctors. To integrate the treatment programme into patients' daily lives, outdoor activities are also involved. It is not a job with a rigid environment.'

Mrs Kwan-Chen described speech therapy as 'a really good profession. We receive great satisfaction when we help people regain their communication abilities, whether they are elderly or youngsters.'

While doctors have a less personal relationship with patients, who they can mostly treat in a few consultations, speech therapists usually see their patients once a week for as long as six months.

'We are able to build a long-term relationship with our patients,' Mrs Kwan-Chen says.

To join this profession here and elsewhere in the world, you can enrol for a degree in speech-language pathology, audiology or speech language and hearing sciences at a US or British university, or take the four-year bachelor programme at the University of Hong Kong.

Like other medical professionals, locally trained therapists who want to work abroad need to obtain a licence from the country where they plan to practise.

Speech therapists have to enjoy working with people and they need to be creative. They also need to be able to handle a heavy workload and pressure. Speech therapists in Hong Kong are normally required to deal with 60 patients a week: designing treatment programmes, conducting evaluation sessions and training patients' families.

'Most of all, they [therapists] must be interested in language. They should possess the ability to pick up language quickly, to be analytical about language patterns and to work with these to help their patients,' Mrs Kwan-Chen says.