A virtual placement: a student perspective
The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted our learning and teaching in all kinds of ways, an important one being our methods for giving our students the work experience they require for their courses. Hear from international MSc Speech and Language Therapy student Joel Fawcett, about his experience undertaking a virtual placement from his home in the USA.
This past autumn, I had the privilege of undertaking a virtual placement opportunity with a hospital’s SLT service. It involved working one-to-one with a client who had been isolated to a side room of a rehabilitation ward. The goal of this placement was to provide the patient with the opportunity to practice conversation skills and serve as a form of social interaction in a time where hospitals were not allowing visitors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The placement lasted for roughly three months in total, consisting of bi-weekly sessions of 30 minutes to one hour, depending on the goals of the session and the patient’s MDT schedule. At the time of the placement, I was abroad in my home country, the United States, and unable to return to England due to travel restrictions. Because of this, the placement was conducted entirely through Microsoft Teams, with the assistance of the SLT supervisor who would come in to set up the technology for the patient and then sit to the side in case any technological issues arose. Fortunately, aside from the occasional WiFi glitch, there were no major technical problems—a wonderful achievement given the transatlantic nature of the placement!
Through this experience I developed crucial skills that I will take with me into future clinical practice. Admittedly, I was initially sceptical about how much of an impact I could have on a patient working with them entirely online. I also worried that my learning would be limited under this arrangement. I am proud to say that neither of these concerns ever became an issue. Despite the virtual setting, I learned valuable clinical skills including strengthening session planning, functional goal writing and SMART target writing, the importance of establishing a strong rapport, and the value of patient-centred practice. I also feel that this experience helped me to become a more adaptable clinician—should a situation like the one we are currently in ever arise in the future, I feel confident knowing that virtual learning experiences can and do have a positive impact on both the student and patient. With the patient’s consent, I even got to observe a virtual physiotherapy session, and the physio team were excellent about answering any questions I had before and after their session with the patient.
It was a great experience that I will always remember. I am so grateful to my supervisor and university for providing me with this opportunity, despite me being nearly 6,000 miles away! For me, the biggest challenge was adjusting to the time difference—at this time I was on US Eastern Standard Time, a 5-hour time difference to the patient. This was easily overcome by scheduling sessions in the afternoon; a typical session was at 8 am for me and 1 pm for the patient. Adapting to technology was also a challenge at first, figuring out when to speak and figuring out how to use different screen share options for session activities to name a few, but with time this got much easier and we made it work to the best of our abilities.
To students going on placement, whether in a virtual setting like this one or in-clinic, I would advise to remember the importance of building a strong rapport with a patient. This can be achieved through active listening and tailoring session tasks to the patient’s personal interests. For example, the patient that I worked with is a big football fan, and one of our goals was to increase maximum utterance length on one breath from three syllables to six. I created fictional football scoreboards using clubs with desired syllable counts and we practiced reading them aloud as a sports announcer would. For students who will be embarking on a similar virtual placement opportunity, I would advise to familiarise yourself with the technology as much as possible, until you’re comfortable using the platforms that you’ll be delivering the service with. I thoroughly enjoyed my experience on an entirely virtual placement and hope you will too!
Jo joined the Speech and Language Therapy lecturing team at Leeds Beckett in February 2017. She lectured here for 3 years in 2003-2006 and combined this with clinical practice, then returned to clinical work full time in 2006. In the last 10 years she has worked as a highly specialist clinician, team leader and latterly as clinical advisor for the Leeds Children's Speech and Language Therapy Service.