Digital Pioneer Fellow Angela Whiteley is a Specialist Speech and Language Therapist and digital transformation champion for children’s therapies at Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust. In this blog, Angela shares how her interest in digital transformation began, the latest update on her online therapy service project and her thoughts on the importance of developing a digital AHP workforce.
It was a miserable, dull Friday morning in June. I was waiting for my year four student (let’s call her student M) to turn up for her language intervention therapy session. This would have been her first remote intervention session and I was particularly nervous. She always had difficulties focusing in our face-to-face sessions, she was very directive, employing distraction techniques as soon as the work was put in front of her. Our sessions were generally five minutes of work and ten minutes of negotiating. I had asked for a Teaching Assistant (TA) to be present for the session in order to support the expected behaviour.
Fast forward to 45 minutes later and student M reluctantly left the call and I danced around my office with joy and happiness. My student had been fully engaged, a delight to work with and both myself and the TA agreed that the transformation was remarkable. The power of digital intervention had struck me like a lightning bolt.
Growing my digital skills
I am a Specialist Paediatric Speech and Language Therapist working for Lewisham & Greenwich NHS Trust. I am a community therapist based in a Child Development Centre and work in mainstream schools within the borough. I hold a caseload of school-aged students who have receptive and expressive language difficulties. Children with receptive language difficulties find it difficult to understand or follow instructions appropriately and when they have expressive language difficulties, they struggle to organise their thoughts and ideas to form grammatically correct sentences. They also struggle to write those thoughts and ideas in a clear way that others can understand. As the child grows older, these difficulties increase the risk of a range of negative impacts on education, employment and social and emotional problems.
I have always had an interest in all things technical and I had harboured a desire years ago to learn to code but I followed the path of Speech and Language Therapy (SLT) instead. Our Trust Chief Technology Officer sent me information about the DigitalHealth.London Digital Pioneer Fellowship and I was very excited about the opportunities that it offered. The ability to discuss ideas, projects, change and digital innovation with other like-minded individuals was huge. I have thoroughly enjoyed the sessions and the people I have met on the Fellowship so far and every session has left me buzzing with energy. I have no real formal background in health informatics, and so I have just set out to soak up as much information as possible from my time on the Fellowship.
Co-designing a therapy service
My project whilst on the programme will transfer our successful, daily, face-to-face drop-in service, to an online version with the same no appointment necessary ethos. Our pre-COVID clinics were very successful. The service offers 15 mins with a qualified therapist, parents are able to discuss their concerns and the therapist provides advice and reassurance and if necessary, onward referrals (such as audiology assessment or developmental assessment with a paediatrician).
As the first step in my project, I spent time gathering requirements by talking to my colleagues and our service users (parents and carers) in order to design the system. The process of co-design was eye opening in relation to the parental needs – 85% of the parents requested services that started earlier in the day and wanted weekend services. None of them wanted the times that we currently offer, however they all offered very positive feedback about the SLT service we provided. I have also taken this opportunity to re-develop all the current processes including administration. The initial phase of the roll-out will begin in April including a pilot phase with our interested and expert parents.
My goal for the future of this project is to expand from just one drop-in service to all the drop-in services for SLT in Lewisham. I would like to integrate the service with our newly designed website, particularly regarding providing resources to parents and signposting to other services. I’m keen to also consider the use of this model for other Allied Health Professionals (AHP) services and to use elements of the design for other AHP and SLT clinic and school services. I think it will also be important to assess any potential inequalities in terms of access to the service which may have been exacerbated by the lack of digital equipment for some families. This is something as a service we need to consider and remedy.
Creating a digital AHP workforce
We have started to see the power of digital innovation and we need to consider the digital readiness of the AHP workforce. There is so much more to be achieved and the future is very exciting. As AHPs, it is imperative that we are aware of the technologies at our disposal and continue to push the boundaries. We are now in a digital era, an era of children who have access to smart phones and apps from birth. Children have little memory of life without a mobile device. They instinctively swipe on the pages of their books as opposed to turning the page. The digital AHP needs to utilise the power of technology in order to keep up with their clients and offer them the best possible service. We must ensure that we are using the tools that our clients and families find interesting to deliver the intervention that they need.
There are four main factors to consider in developing a digital AHP workforce:
- The ability of the client to engage and accept the solutions offered.
- The technology available to enable the offering of new digital solutions.
- The ability of AHP staff to engage with and deliver these technological solutions to the clients.
- The innovators who can provide a solution that satisfies all these needs.
We need consider investing in the digital competency of our staff. We need to ensure that we are using the tools that our students find interesting to deliver the interventions that they need in order to achieve personal and academic success. A digitally enabled therapist utilising the power of technology will result in better outcomes for our patients. If we work together, we have the ability to ensure that the future for student M is bright and sunny.
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