Speech Pathology

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Field description

Speech-language pathologists in a medical setting assess, diagnose, treat and help prevent oral motor, swallowing, cognitive-linguistic, speech and language disorders.

Speech pathologists work with individuals whose oral motor, swallowing, cognitive-linguistic, speech or language skills have been affected by a neurological event or disease, head or neck cancer, or possibly debilitation related to an underlying medical disease process.

This includes individuals:

  • With speech articulation and fluency difficulty such as dysarthria
  • With voice quality problems, such as inappropriate pitch or harsh voice possibly related to vocal abuse or cancer
  • With cognitive-communicative impairments, including underlying attention, memory, abstract reasoning, or problem-solving deficits possibly related to a stroke, brain injury or underlying medical disease process
  • With a language disorder such as aphasia or a motor planning disorder such as apraxia
  • Who have oropharyngeal weakness that places them at risk of aspiration, or food or liquid entering the airway when swallowing that can lead to respiratory complications

Oral motor, swallowing, cognitive-linguistic, speech and language disorders can result from a variety of neurological events, including brain injury, stroke, seizure, progressive disease, cancer or debilitation related to other medical diseases. Speech-language pathologists use physical examination, instrumental technology, and standardized cognitive-linguistic and language tests to diagnose and guide treatment.

Speech-language pathologists develop an individualized plan of care, tailored to each patient's needs. Speech-language pathologists may recommend alternate nutrition based upon aspiration risk when swallowing, recommend diet-level modification to reduce aspiration risk when swallowing, design an individualized augmentative communication system, or prescribe a speech-generating device for individuals with nonfunctional speech.

They provide education to patients, their family members and caregivers regarding impairments, disease processes and compensatory strategies. They develop daily home programs unique to each individual's strengths and weaknesses that facilitate maintenance of swallowing, cognitive-linguistic, speech or language skills at an optimal level.

In addition to clinical practice, medical speech pathologists also participate in research.

Career opportunities

Speech-language pathologists held about 135,400 jobs in the United States in 2014. Employment of speech-language pathologists is projected to grow 21 percent from 2014 to 2024, much faster than the average for all occupations.

As the large baby-boom population grows older, there will be more instances of health conditions that cause speech or language impairments, such as strokes and hearing loss. In addition, medical advances are improving the survival rate of premature infants and trauma victims, who then need assessment and possible treatment.

A small number of speech-language pathologists and audiologists are self-employed in private practice. They contract to provide services in schools, physicians' offices, hospitals or nursing homes, or work as consultants to industry.

Employment in schools will increase along with growth in elementary and secondary school enrollments, including enrollment of special education students. Federal law guarantees special education and related services to all eligible children with disabilities. Greater awareness of the importance of early identification and diagnosis of speech, language and hearing disorders will also increase employment.

The number of speech-language pathologists and audiologists in private practice will rise due to the increasing use of contract services by hospitals, schools and nursing homes.

Earnings potential

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual earnings of speech-language pathologists were $73,410 in 2015. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $46,000 and the highest 10 percent earned more than $114,840.

Professional organizations

March 09, 2017