The chief executive of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT) said it is "alarming" that a survey found almost 1 in 4 jobs are vacant across the UK.
A survey by the professional body found speech and language therapy (SLT) vacancies across the UK had reached 23% with almost all children's services (96%) and 9 out of 10 adult services (90%) which responded saying recruitment is more or much more challenging than at any time in the past 3 years.
RCSLT's new Chief Executive, Steve Jamieson, told the PA news agency: "It’s really alarming and something that we really need to look at."
In England, vacancies have reached 25% in children’s services and 24% in adult services across NHS and non-NHS provision, according to responses to the survey. Responses suggested vacancies in the South Central area – Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, and Hampshire – were as high as 57% in adult services and 36% in children’s services, although only six services offered data, and other regions reported that more than a third of jobs were unfilled in children's SLT services in the West Midlands (35%) and East of England (34%).
Mr Jamieson said speech and language therapy is "amazing" work which has "a real impact" and when he spoke to therapists it was "very sad to hear about the impact of the challenges they are having".
Pandemic Added to the Pressure on SLT Services
Speech and language therapists work with all age groups, supporting people, including premature babies, autistic children, cancer and stroke survivors, and people with motor neurone disease and dementia.
A delay to receiving SLT support can affect a person's ability to communicate with friends and family or to eat and drink as well as a child's ability to access the school curriculum, to regulate their behaviour or to form friendships.
The COVID-19 pandemic added to the pressure on SLT services, exacerbating waiting times for assessment and support, as well as adding referrals to see young children whose language and social development was hampered by pandemic restrictions which meant they were not mixing with other children or adults at play groups, nurseries, and schools.
"By the time they are seen by a SLT their needs are a lot more complex and difficult to manage and to treat,” Mr Jamieson said.
Some people who were seriously ill with COVID-19 and needed a tube to help them breathe for a period of time have also needed speech and language therapy to help their recovery.
"Waiting lists have gone up and up," Mr Jamieson said. "People in post are struggling to keep on top of that."
Lack of Post-COVID Recovery Funding
The RCSLT survey found only 8% of children’s services and 11% of adult services had received any post COVID recovery funding.
"It demonstrates a lack of understanding that the Government has about the impact of this," Mr Jamieson said.
Staffing shortages mean some therapists are struggling to offer people the number of sessions they need which is also affecting staff morale, he said. "Morale in the NHS is quite low so people are thinking 'can I do this much more?'.
"They are taking on more work and finding they just can’t deal with it any more," he added. "From a clinical point of view, they are thinking they can’t give the care they want to, maybe one or two sessions rather than six to 12, so they feel they aren't doing their job as well as they want to."
'Constantly Trying to Keep on Top of Recruitment'
Ruth Rayner, who is head of speech and language therapy and integrated children’s therapies at South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust, has been a speech and language therapist for 36 years.
"The demand is high, higher than I have ever seen it. Staff want to do a good job. They want to do the best for the people they are working with," she said. "We are constantly trying to keep on top of recruitment. We definitely don't get as many applicants as we did.
"It’s definitely getting harder across the country to recruit at Band 6 and above, the more experienced staff."
Charlotte Colesby, speech and language therapy services manager at the Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust, has also been a speech and language therapist for more than 30 years and agreed that recruiting into specialist posts is "more challenging".
Both said good relationships with local universities were key to recruiting newly qualified SLTs while "grow your own" initiatives to help staff to develop into more specialist roles was important in terms of filling senior vacancies.
The RCSLT survey results found more than 900 jobs were vacant out of around 4000 full-time equivalent roles in more than 250 services which responded. As the RCSLT estimates that around 40% of services in the UK responded to its survey, the number of vacancies is likely to be much higher. The survey found the vacancy rate in children’s SLT services was 14% in Scotland and 11% in Wales, while adult services had vacancy rates of 15% in Wales and 8% in Scotland.
Data for Northern Ireland was not shown separately due to the small number of services which responded.
An NHS England spokesperson said: "The NHS is working hard to reduce waiting times and improve outcomes for children and young people's services, including those commissioned by local authorities, and is developing a long term workforce plan to ensure services have the right numbers of appropriate staff over the coming years."
The Department of Health was contacted for response.
The survey was carried out via Survey Monkey from January 3 to February 8 2023 and promoted via the RCSLT's communication channels. Services were asked to define their total planned qualified SLT workforce on a full-time equivalent basis as at December 31 2022 and asked to give their vacant posts on a full-time equivalent basis at the same date.
This article contains information from PA Media