UK Voice and Swallow Clinic navigates pandemic challenges to provide quality care

When COVID-19 first began to hit the United States, health care facilities around the country were forced to close their doors. If they were able to remain open, many were faced with challenges, including procuring adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), transitioning services that could be completed via teletherapy, and ensuring patients and staff remained safe. Faced with these challenges, UK Voice and Swallow Clinic was one of the few clinics that remained operational since the start of the pandemic.

“Everything came to a screeching halt in March, but that wasn’t an option for us”, said Debra Suiter, PhD, BCS-S, FASHA, CCC-SLP, director of the Voice and Swallow Clinic.  “We heard rumors that outpatient clinics would shut down and we were trying to make sure we had adequate PPE to perform our duties.”

The clinic — which is comprised of speech-language pathologists from the College of Health Sciences — provides care related to voice disorders, resonance, breathing, swallowing, and head and neck cancer. Founded by Joe Stemple, PhD, CCC-SLP, ASHA-H, and Sanford Archer, MD, FACS, the clinic has state of the art equipment, along with a diverse, multidisciplinary team, to provide comprehensive care as the largest clinic of its kind in the state of Kentucky. The UK Voice and Swallow Clinic serves people from throughout Kentucky and surrounding region.

This entire period has been a learning process for all of the clinicians. Vrushali Angadi, PhD, CCC-SLP, found working during the pandemic to be quite challenging, but necessary. “We listened carefully to our colleagues practicing in cities that were hard-hit (like New York City) and devised safe-practice guidelines. Our top priority was to deliver treatment in a way that was safest for our patients and us,” she said.

The Voice and Swallow Clinic performs many procedures that are aerosol-generating, which is high-risk for COVID-19 transmission. This made it even more critical for the clinic to be as careful as possible. “We were constantly reading through new literature and updated CDC guidelines with regards to PPE use and disease transmission. This has often been termed as a constantly evolving situation,” Angadi said.

Although the clinic stayed open through the pandemic, teletherapy has played a large role in the clinic’s day-to-day practice. This shift to tele-health has been a blessing for many patients. “Before COVID-19, Medicare would not reimburse for speech therapy services delivered via teletherapy. A silver lining of the pandemic is that we are now able to be reimbursed for those services. However, this change required learning the how to comply with Kentucky licensure requirements for provision of teletherapy services,” according to Suiter. “We serve a lot of patients from all over the state, and with teletherapy, patients no longer need to come all the way to Lexington for their sessions”, said Lauren Shnowske, MS, CCC-SLP. “This was a game-changer for our patients both near and far, making it much easier to provide high quality care as well as lowering risk of exposure for our patients who may be immunocompromised or have other medical conditions.”

The UK Voice and Swallow Clinic team has not let down their guard, especially with rising numbers in the state and country. “We are definitely still learning and reassessing periodically” said Suiter. They continue to strive for excellence in healthcare delivery and provide the best and safest care to their patients during these challenging times.