Speech therapist crisis deplored

A CRITICAL shortage of speech and language therapists has left thousands of people with untreated speech defects and language difficulties, in some cases for up to three years.

In the South Western Health Board area alone, 55% of speech therapy posts remain unfilled and almost 3,000 people are awaiting either assessment or therapy.

In the Eastern Health Board area, children in two special language classes at St Mark’s National School in Tallaght have been without speech therapists for all of this school year. Parents, backed by the INTO, marched on the Dáil yesterday to highlight their plight and later met with Junior Health Minister Tim O’Malley. Among the solutions being looked at is the possibility of the Government buying in a private therapist as a stop-gap.

INTO vice-president Seán Rowley said it was a cause for national embarrassment that parents and teachers were forced to protest to get resources for their special needs children. He called for the setting up of a national speech and language service.

The Irish Association of Speech and Language Therapists said members believed there had been a freeze on filling vacant posts. “We have got feedback from members on the ground that posts have been frozen. Members are reluctant to name the boards publicly for fear of repercussions,” chairperson Anne Geraghty said. “Last year, our association understood that up to 40% of new and existing posts were vacant. In some cases speech and language therapy managers were told they could advertise for three months, but, after that, if posts had not been filled, they would have to go before a budgetary review committee before advertising again.

“In other health boards, there was no expansion of services (i.e. although new posts were sanctioned, they were not filled and now no longer exist). In other instances, there was no advertising to fill vacant posts and one service interviewed but is now not going to fill these posts.”

Ms Geraghty said the shortage affected the most vulnerable: “It affects services across the board from children with autism and other learning difficulties, to adults with stammers, stroke victims, head injury patients and cancer of the larynx.”

The Department of Health and the health boards denied there was a freeze on filling vacancies, citing difficulties recruiting nationally and internationally. Most health boards are trying to fill posts through massive overseas recruitment drives. Ms Geraghty said there were approximately 300 speech and language therapists in the services. One report recommended 1,285 by 2015.

To address the shortage, University College Cork and National University of Galway are to commence a four-year degree training course from 2003. A two-year Masters in the University of Limerick will commence this year. These degree courses will lead to 75 additional graduates each year, from 2007, commencing with 25 additional graduates from 2005.

Northern Area Health Board: 14 vacancies. 1,066 awaiting assessment, 1,789 awaiting therapy at December 31 2002.

South Western Area Health Board: 55% vacancy rate. Average assessment waiting times 3-16 months, therapy waiting times 5-21 months. 1,553 awaiting assessment, 1,398 awaiting therapy at December 31 2002.

East Coast Area Health Board: 9.3 vacancies. 504 awaiting assessment for 3-10 months. 727 awaiting therapy between 6-16 months.

North Eastern Health Board: 11 vacancies. Assessment waiting time 18 months, for therapy 13 months. Figures available for Co Louth only: 20 awaiting assessment, 815 awaiting therapy.

Southern Health Board: 11.6 vacancies. Four month wait for assessment, up to three year wait for therapy. Figures for west Cork only: 31 await assessment, 510 await therapy.

South Eastern Health Board: 13.5 vacancies. Assessment waiting time for children is up to eight months and treatment waiting times are up to 2 years and five months. No waiting list figures available

Midland Health Board: 12 vacancies, 431 awaiting assessment. No therapy waiting list figure available.

Western, Midwestern and North Western Health Boards failed to supply any figures.

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