After graduating from college, Lynne Conley worked in a program for developmentally delayed adults. "The staff included a speech-language pathologist. As I watched her work, I realized that a person in this field could have a measurable impact on someone's life," says Conley, manager of speech pathology for Park Nicollet Health Services.


A Varied Career

Speech-language pathologists, also called speech therapists, evaluate and treat patients of all ages who have communication disorders or difficulty swallowing. Therapists work with a wide range of patients, from infants with feeding problems to older adults with Parkinson's disease.


Speech-language pathologists work closely with occupational and physical therapists as well as physicians and nurses. And because no two patients have exactly the same problem, every day presents new challenges and problems to solve.


"It's a career that offers tremendous variety," Conley says. "You can be a generalist or a specialist. You can start out in one area and then, after a few years, move to another. You can work with kids, adults or both. You don't have to do the same thing all your life."


Conley specializes in working with stroke survivors, especially patients with aphasia. These individuals have lost their ability to understand language or understand but cannot form words.


Individual Patients And Groups

Most speech-language pathologists spend 50 to 70 percent of their time in direct patient contact. Much of this involves one-on-one contact, but increasingly, therapists are working with small groups of patients.


One pediatric speech therapist at Park Nicollet leads a group for autistic children who are learning conversational and social skills, which they don't instinctively understand.


Conley facilitates a group for people with aphasia. "In today's world, everything moves so fast that no one can wait for them to get a word out," she says. "In the group, they can practice speaking with others who understand their difficulties."


Park Nicollet also offers three levels of book clubs for stroke survivors. "They've proven very effective for people who have always enjoyed reading but can no longer participate in a regular book club," Conley says.


Education And Employment Outlook

To be licensed in Minnesota, speech-language pathologists must complete a master's degree, including 400 hours of supervised clinical experience, and a postgraduate clinical fellowship. They must also pass a national exam to earn the Certificate of Clinical Competence from the American Speech and Hearing Association.


Roughly half of all speech-language pathologists work in school systems. The rest work in healthcare settings including hospitals, long-term care, home health care and outpatient clinics.


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, restrictions on reimbursement may limit opportunities in healthcare in the near term. In the long term, however, the demand for therapists should continue to rise.


New graduates may have difficulty finding a job in a hospital or clinic. Conley advises them to get experience first with a rehabilitation agency or in a school setting - depending on their area of interest. "Generalists may also have an easier time getting that first job," she says. "And bilingualism - especially in Spanish - is a always a plus."


Nancy Giguere is a freelance writer from St. Paul who has written about healthcare since 1995.