Written Answers. - Speech Therapy Service.

Finian McGrath

Question:

235 Mr. F. McGrath asked the Minister for Health and Children the reason children with disabilities have to wait 18 months for speech therapy; and his plans to improve the situation. [15287/02]

Additional funding has been made available annually in recent years to the health boards in respect of the provision of health related support services for children with an intellectual disability and those with autism. In addition to this ringfenced funding, children with disabilities would also have benefited from the additional therapy posts which have been put in place in services for persons with physical or sensory disabilities.

However, many health boards and specialist service providers have been experiencing difficulties in recruiting allied health professionals and specifically speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists and psychologists. This is due primarily to the general shortage of available staff in these grades nationally. Health boards and agencies have been and are continuing to undertake intensive recruitment drives at home and abroad. The Northern Area Health Board has just undertaken a concerted overseas recruitment drive for speech and language therapists on behalf of all health boards.

Procedures are being streamlined to minimise the length of time taken to validate foreign qualifications consistent with the overreaching need to ensure that all therapists working in the health sector are appropriately trained and qualified. My Department has asked the health boards and the Eastern Regional Health Authority to explore other approaches which might result in the maintenance of an existing level of service provision or an enhancement in line with agreed service developments using the resources allocated to the services.

In response to my concern regarding the high level of vacancies my Department commissioned a report from Dr. Peter Bacon and Associates on current and future supply and demand conditions in the labour market for speech and language therapists, occupational therapists and physiotherapists. The study was published in July 2001. The report recommends an annual increase of 75 course places for speech and language therapy in order to achieve a fourfold increase in the number of speech and language therapists over the next decade.
To enhance this core recommendation, an interagency working group was established comprising representatives of my Department, the Department of Education and Science and the Higher Education Authority, HEA. The HEA, following a formal bidding process between third level educational institutions, has allocated an additional 75 training places for speech and language therapy to respond to the training needs identified in the study. The report of the expert group on various health professionals recommended the establishment of a therapy assistant grade, where appropriate, to provide practical support to speech and language therapists in their work and also to address the issue of skills mix. These recommendations will be progressed in 2002 in the context of the continuing implementation of the expert group report.