Meet Dr Brooke-Mai Whelan, the Program Director of UQ’s Bachelor of Speech Pathology (Honours). Her passion for post-brain-injury communication rehabilitation is driving research supporting people with communication disabilities and ensuring tomorrow’s speech pathologists are taught with the patient in mind.
To Brooke-Mai, communication is a fundamental human right.
“It’s the cornerstone of speech pathology practice,” she says.
“The ability to support people with communication disabilities in re-finding their voice after a brain injury is my driving force as an academic speech pathologist.”
“The average person is reported to speak at least 7000 words per day. Most of us talk without even thinking about it and convey our messages effectively. People with communication disabilities, however, are not always able to express themselves freely and successfully, which can negatively impact quality of life.”
It's this belief that drives Brooke-Mai’s research, currently focusing on the identification of clinical markers of disordered speech using high-tech analysis with acoustic and automated speech processing software.
“Validating the use of these assessment tools will improve prognostic precision in predicting speech deterioration in neurodegenerative disease and reduce patient and clinician assessment burden,” says Brooke-Mai.
“Without a doubt, the most rewarding part of my job is being able to positively impact the lives of people with communication disabilities through my research. One of my research participants, whose speech was affected following a stroke, told me that after completing her speech treatment program she was able to go to the KFC drive-through for the first time in 10 years and have her order taken correctly.”
“She was thrilled that she could be understood by a stranger, and it’s outcomes like these that affirm what a positive contribution speech pathology can make to the lives of those with communication disabilities.”
Leading critical research and tomorrow’s health professionals
Brooke-Mai is currently the Program Director for UQ’s undergraduate speech pathology degree, the Bachelor of Speech Pathology (Honours).
“I was drawn to an academic role at UQ due to its strong focus on teaching and research excellence,” says Brooke-Mai.
“I enjoy the rapid pace and freedom of academia – a typical day may involve a combination of teaching, writing publications, data analysis, a Teaching and Learning Committee meeting, and a student advisement session.”
“No two days are ever the same. I’m inspired each day by my colleagues and students, who energise me with their thirst for knowledge and pursuit of excellence.”
As part of her role, Brooke-Mai leads the development and delivery of the adult motor speech and voice disorders curricula, ensuring the current cohort of speech pathology students are across the issues felt by those with communication difficulties.
While the challenges for those in need are complex, Brooke-Mai is confident that tomorrow’s speech pathologists will be equipped and competent to provide the level of evidence-based care required to reach the best health outcomes.
She is also confident that UQ’s speech pathology students will be in good stead for their own careers in a job market calling out for their expertise.
“UQ speech pathology graduates are highly competitive in a rapidly growing job market,” she says.
“This is because they typically exceed entry-level professional practice standards and, as such, are highly sought after in all industry areas.”
“The introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) has seen an explosion in the private sector over the last three years, with the demand for speech pathology graduates currently exceeding supply, especially in rural and remote areas of Australia. Indeed, the future of the profession of speech pathology is looking very bright, and UQ graduates are workforce-ready shining stars.”
UQ’s Bachelor of Speech Pathology (Honours) is recognised nationally and internationally for its award-winning teachers and graduate leaders, and it is ranked #1 in Australia by students.
The future of speech pathology
According to Brooke-Mai, changes to how speech pathologists are being needed, and how they work with patients, are being driven by multiple factors, including who it is that’s requiring the services and a digital environment that has become more commonplace over recent years.
“The development of telehealth technologies such as videoconferencing and virtual-reality platforms will change the way we deliver services into the future,” she says.
“Changing community need will also influence our future caseloads and required skillsets.”
“Currently, there is an increase in the number of children being diagnosed with developmental conditions such as autism. There is also an increase in survival rates associated with chronic diseases and complex medical conditions that may impact upon communication abilities including dementia, premature birth, and mental illness.”
When asked where she sees the profession heading, Brooke-Mai is confident that speech pathology is moving in a positive trajectory and is already providing support in more areas than people might expect.
“The scope of speech pathology practice is no longer limited to the remediation of speech impairments,” she says.
“Speech pathologists are making contributions to a number of complex scientific fields, such as the genetic basis of stuttering and neuroimaging markers of brain recovery. New graduates should expect the scope of our work to continue to expand and metamorphose in the coming decades.”
“This expansion will also be influenced by the pace of technology advancement. It is envisaged that Speech Pathologists will make future contributions to the development of health and educational apps, socially assistive robotics, and wearable technologies to support people with communication impairments.”
“Aspiring speech pathologists should know that communication is embedded in everything that we do, and the breadth and depth of speech pathology roles is only limited by our imagination.”