Communication has been defined as “a process of meaningful interaction among human beings. More specifically, it is the process by which meanings are perceived and understandings are reached among human beings.”

Communication is an essential component in everyday life that enables individuals to connect and develop relationships, whether positive or negative, through expression as well as appreciation of information, thoughts and emotions.

Though there are various forms of communication in addition to speech – such as written communication and non-verbal communication which includes gestures, facial expressions and body language – individuals who are non-verbal, struggling with speech, or facing language barriers may become limited in their ability to interact socially and communicate their basic needs and wants.

As a result of such hurdles, these individuals can become closed off from other people in their daily lives.

SLP: More than just speech therapy

Speech therapists, more accurately known as speech-language pathologists (SLPs), are qualified allied health professionals who work to assess, diagnose and treat patients who suffer from disorders in speech and language - but the scope of practice of a SLP is a lot broader than helping patients who stutter or have a lisp. In fact, these professionals are skilled in addressing a wide array of disorders in verbal communication.

“We collaborate with other disciplines such as nursing, activity directors, and physical and occupational therapists,” explained Michelle Tristani, a National Rehab Clinical Specialist for Speech Pathology.

“Speech and language interventions are included in each patient’s care plan, as appropriate. We also provide training to other therapists on individualised and effective communication with patients who have speech problems, and on strategies that will help them to communicate with patients who have impaired cognition.”

During therapy sessions, SLPs help patients who suffer from speech delays or disorders with verbal skills such as articulation, resonance and phonology, and also target specific concepts of language such as comprehension in oral and non-verbal contexts, grammar, sequencing, the use of pronouns and many more.

Patients with receptive language disorders who face difficulty in understanding others, or have trouble with expressive language and find it complex to share their thoughts and ideas, can also receive help from SLPs.

Playing an important role in rehabilitation

While it may seem that SLPs work with young children, these professionals actually also work closely with adult patients, such as patients with critical illness, patients who have suffered a stroke or elderly patients who may have dysphagia and face difficulties in feeding.

“Speech therapists are also trained in helping with swallowing disorders which means we work with those who have feeding problems. This includes children with cleft and lip palates (birth defects) as well as children who have problems with feeding,” said Jennifer Peters, a paediatric SLP and director of Care Speech in Malaysia.

Patients with traumatic brain injuries, stroke and dementia may also have cognitive-communication disorders such as difficulties in problem solving, organising thoughts, paying attention and planning, and may require help from a SLP.

Additionally, SLPs can provide aural rehabilitation for individuals with hearing impairment, augmentative and alternative communication systems for individuals with severe language comprehension disorders, or simply work with healthy individuals who have no speech, language, or swallowing disorders but are keen in learning to communicate more effectively with others.

Shortage of SLPs in Malaysia despite growing demand

Unfortunately, Malaysia is facing a shortage of SLPs, with only approximately 300 speech therapists in the country, according to Dr Hasherah Mohd Ibrahim, a lecturer from the School of Rehabilitation Sciences in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. The numbers only translate to a ratio of one speech therapist per 100,000 population, unlike in the United States, which has a 41-to-100,000 ratio.

“In Singapore, each hospital has between seven to 12 speech therapists, but in Malaysia, only large hospitals have speech therapists, and only two or three hospitals have more than one speech therapist, so the numbers are definitely not enough,” Hasherah said.

Despite the growing demand for the profession, the shortage of SLPs in the country may not recover so soon, as she posits that more students prefer to pursue other health professions such as medicine or dentistry, over speech science.

“In general, it is estimated that five to 10 per cent of the population worldwide suffers from speech related problems, and if this percentage is used in Malaysia, about 2.8 million people are suffering from speech problems which require the services of a speech therapist,” Hasherah said. MIMS

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