MARK BAIN | BELFAST TELEGRAPH
There has been an 87% increase in the number of children in need of speech and language therapy across Northern Ireland in the past year, but key positions across all five health trusts remain unfilled, a leading industry body has warned.
The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT) said the system is in danger of collapse unless action is taken to fill vacancies and enable the service to operate at a sustainable level.
This includes commissioning more undergraduate places, as well as developing apprenticeships and alternative routes into the profession. The body said it remains “very concerned” that the current and projected shortfall in therapists will especially affect children.
The warning follows on the back of evidence that speech and language therapy (SLT) services for children in the community are hugely overstretched.
“As highlighted in a recent report by the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, there has been an 87% increase in the numbers of children waiting for speech and language therapy in the community, compared to the same month in 2021” the RCSLT said.
The Royal College said it also raised concerns in August regarding the need to ensure there is greater support for pupils with special education needs (SEN). It said additional funding from the Department of Education for SEN services in September was welcome, but the historical funding gap remains following years of underinvestment.
“We are putting those in Northern Ireland with speech, language, communication and swallowing needs at a disadvantage if investment is not made to the workforce,” said Ruth Sedgewick, head of RCSLT’s NI office.
“Our members have reported that they are under extreme pressure to meet the growing demands for services. This simply cannot continue.
“In contrast to other parts of the UK, Northern Ireland has failed to take any specific measures to mitigate the impact of Covid on children’s early language development.
“We are now seeing the increases in children being referred with delays, and significant needs have taken longer to identify. This is one of the issues that will be impacting on longer waiting lists.
“As with many areas of the health and social care system, the speech and language therapy workforce is at a critical juncture,” she added.
“We have made it clear to the Department of Health that greater investment, and increased SLT training places, must be made available to ensure all those living with a speech, language and communication need have access to essential treatments, especially our children with special educational needs.
“Closer cooperation between the Departments of Health and Education is welcome and must continue to ensure services are meaningful and children are not left behind here.
“While we recognise that the political limbo in Northern Ireland makes it difficult for funding decisions to be made, people who need speech and language therapy should not be collateral damage.
“We are calling on the Departments of Health and Education to ensure that all those who need therapy are not failed.”
Both departments have been contacted for comment.