The Northwest Territories government is suspending speech language pathology services in schools until at least September due to low staffing levels.
The NWT’s health authority announced the suspension in a public notice last month. The authority said that will allow travel clinics to continue in smaller NWT communities and reduce wait times for children under five years old who need to see a speech pathologist.
“This temporary shift out of the schools will allow staff to focus on the hands-on work for those who need it most, as some youth age out of this program at five years of age,” the notice stated.
“It will also expand the opportunity for those youths on the waitlist to access the service more rapidly before they age out, and help ensure continued travel clinics to communities outside the hubs by sharing resources territorially during a period of lower-than-normal staffing.”
David Maguire, a spokesperson for the authority, told Cabin Radio children receive direct therapy until they reach Grade 1 when they are served through a consultation model. He said the authority is now focusing its limited speech pathology resources on the younger age group as evidence suggests early therapeutic invention has the largest benefit.
In-school speech language services have been suspended in the NWT since January 2022 due to Covid-19. The authority said it will decide whether to resume in-school clinics before school resumes in September.
Speech language pathology services evaluate, diagnose and treat conditions involving communication, speech, language and swallowing.
While children in the program could expect one or two in-school assessments a year, the majority of services are delivered in clinics or hospitals.
In-school visits will still take place on a case-by-case basis, the health authority said, for children who are only able to access services at school.
Limited staff, long wait times
Health minister Julie Green last month attributed the service suspension to high vacancy rates.
“There is a very strong demand for these professions and not a very robust workforce,” Green told the legislature. “We, like everywhere else in the country, have experienced a shortage of people in these areas and the result is unfortunate wait times for patients.”
Maguire said at the beginning of March, more than 950 children were accessing speech language services at Stanton Territorial Hospital and around 150 have since been discharged from school-aged service.
Wait times to access services range from two months in Fort Smith to half a year or more in Yellowknife.
Maguire said at Stanton Territorial Hospital – which provides speech language services for Yellowknife, Łútsël K’é, and the Dehcho and Tłı̨chǫ regions – one of two school-age positions is filled and eight of nine other speech language positions are filled. He said there are 20 children on the waitlist who will “age out” by September and will be prioritized before they start Grade 1.
The Beaufort Delta has three vacancies, the Tłı̨chǫ Community Services Agency has one vacant preschool position, and Fort Smith has no vacancies.