Dáil Éireann - Volume 550 - 20 March, 2002

Written Answers. - Speech Therapy Service.

  339. Mr. Bell asked the Minister for Health and Children if his attention has been drawn to the shortage of speech therapists in the North-Eastern Health Board Area for Down's syndrome children; his views on whether this is due to staff [1219] shortages over the past five years; his plans to rectify this situation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8445/02]

  Minister for Health and Children (Mr. Martin): Responsibility for the provision of speech and language therapy services to children with Down's Syndrome in the north east is a matter for the North-Eastern Health Board. Additional funding has been made available annually in recent years to the health boards, including the North-Eastern Health Board, for the provision of health-related support services for children with an intellectual disability and those with autism. In addition to this ring-fenced funding, children with disabilities have also benefited from the additional therapy posts which have been put in place in services for persons with physical or sensory disabilities. Many health boards and specialist service providers have been experiencing difficulties in recruiting allied health professionals, especially 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. 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.

  An inter-agency working group has been established comprising representatives of my Department, the Department of Education and Science and the Higher Education Authority. The Higher Education Authority has initiated a formal bidding process between third level educational institutions to respond to the training needs identified in the study. The proposals received are currently being assessed by the group with a view to allocating the increased course places as soon as possible. In addition the Northern Area Health Board will shortly be undertaking a concerted overseas recruitment drive for speech and language therapists on behalf of all health boards. 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 thera[1220] pists in their work and also to address the issue of skills mix. This recommendation will be dealt with in 2002 in the context of the continuing implementation of the report.