With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the Craig Hospital Aphasia Therapy (CHAT) Program quickly started looking at creative ways to provide therapy. Participants in the outpatient program usually come to Craig for a three-week intensive, but with precautions in place to help prevent the spread of the virus, it was clear that considering telehealth was the way to go.
Aphasia is a language disorder that impacts a person’s ability to access, use, and/or understand language. Craig’s therapy program, one of just twelve in the country and only two west of the Mississippi River, involves several hours each day of one-on-one speech therapy, plus additional options like group speech-language therapy, music therapy, assistive technology, and more.
Comprehension and communication are always important, but they have become especially important during the pandemic. “People continue to need support with communication following aphasia,” Craig CHAT Program Coordinator Kristen Mascareñas Wendling, MA, CCC-SLP, says. “And a pandemic is such an important time for people to have access to words to express their inner world and emotions, to process what’s going on, and to get their needs met.”
While there were challenges in adapting the program for a virtual environment, there were also a few unexpected benefits. Once testing and therapy materials were adapted so that they could be completed via telehealth, the opportunity for greater participation increased because patients anywhere in the country could enroll in the program. Especially for graduates of Craig’s inpatient brain injury program, 50% of whom come to Craig from out of state, going virtual presents a more affordable and accessible way to participate.
Additionally, many patients benefited from being in their home environment to practice language. Participants are sometimes more comfortable and relaxed when they are sitting in their own living rooms, plus the speech therapy sessions can directly relate to their home lives. In-person therapy sessions at Craig often involve recreating a patient’s day-to-day world, like referencing family members, pets, objects, or actions, but when they are already home, the session can benefit from being in that environment.
With this new understanding of some of the advantages of telehealth for aphasia therapy, the CHAT Program is pivoting for the long-term when the pandemic is over. Therapists are getting licensed in other states so that they can work with patients no matter where they live, and the team has implemented safety procedures to allow some in-person attendance of the program depending on current pandemic safety policies. With this new hybrid model established, the CHAT Program is looking forward to the opportunities this will offer to Craig graduates or new patients in the future.