Partnerships That Make a Difference

Using Telehealth to improve services in Aboriginal communities

Alice Eriks-Brophy collaborates with local community personnel, researchers, and Telehealth providers in the Sioux Lookout Region of northern Ontario to examine the feasibility of delivering speech-language services using videoconferencing technology.

Speech and language skills are crucial components of academic, vocational and social success, all of which constitute important determinants of health.  Deficits in speech and language propagate throughout a child’s lifetime, with increasingly negative consequences for learning, employment, social and personal adaptation.   As a previous classroom teacher and clinician with over twenty five years of involvement with Aboriginal communities, Alice Eriks-Brophy, Associate Professor in the Department of Speech-Language Pathology is well aware of the potential negative impact of weak speech and language skills on children’s educational and vocational development.  The incidence of children and youth with speech and language difficulties in Aboriginal communities is reportedly very high, while access to SLP assessment and services may be delayed or even non-existent.

In an attempt to reduce the many barriers to S-LP services currently experienced by many Aboriginal communities, Alice has been conducting research examining the feasibility of carrying out speech and language assessments and interventions for Aboriginal children referred for possible communication disorders living in remote areas of Northern Ontario using videoconferencing technology.  The project represents a collaboration among professionals, local community personnel, researchers, and telehealth providers in the Sioux Lookout Region of northern Ontario.   Results of the ongoing project show that technology can be used very effectively as a complement to S-LP services, however culturally appropriate and valid assessment and intervention outcomes through technology require the involvement and training of local personnel to act as informants and assistants in the assessment and intervention processes.   Direct contact remains essential in order to understand the local community context and to avoid cultural misunderstandings and potential biases that might lead to incorrect clinical judgments and intervention goals  For this reason, telehealth should not be perceived as a means of replacing the presence of the rehabilitation professional, and travel and local contact are required in order to ensure successful results.

Some of the benefits of the local collaborations that have stemmed from the research project include heightened community awareness of the importance of  fostering strong speech and language abilities in children, a greater understanding of the impact of hearing and hearing loss on child development, an interest in developing assessment and intervention materials that are grounded in local knowledge and ways of communicating and interacting, as well as an interest in the development of training programs for local personnel to enhance their participation in the appropriate and effective use of telehealth for various rehabilitation services including S-LP.

Future goals for research collaboration include the development of S-LP assessment and intervention tools and materials that more accurately reflect Aboriginal cultural  knowledge and world views, a greater understanding of the ways in which S-LP assessment and intervention might be adapted to the communicative needs of Aboriginal children, and increased collaboration using technology to successfully respond to individual community wishes and requirements across the rehabilitation disciplines.