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Volume 17, Number 1 2015

Journal of Clinical Practice in Speech-Language Pathology

since become practising speech pathologists have also

reported that participating in the SCV program provided a

way to demonstrate their commitment, insight, and skills in

job applications. Volunteers not otherwise affiliated with

speech pathology have commented upon the sense of value

they experience as volunteers. Volunteers have reported

that they often have much in common with patients, who

appear to appreciate their perspectives on life experiences.

These volunteers often report increased confidence and

skill in communicating not only with patients with

communication disorders but also with patients from

culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

Clinician reflections

Clinicians have responded positively to the SCV program.

Anecdotally, they report that it provides patients with

opportunities to practise communication strategies learned

in therapy in a supportive environment. They have also

received valuable feedback from volunteers during

debriefing sessions, which has enabled them to gain a

more holistic view of the patient. At times this has led to

clinicians initiating referrals for patients and/or family

members to other health professionals and/or to pastoral

care for support. Clinicians have also reported that the

presence of supported conversation volunteers on the ward

and the positive feedback from patients and visitors have

increased the awareness of staff and visitors about the skills

required to successfully communicate with people with

acquired communication disorders and the breadth of the

speech pathologist’s role. The SCV program has also

resulted in greater recognition of the speech pathology

profession. The SCV program won the St Vincent’s Health

Australia Quality Award in the category of Mission and

Social Justice, Mary Aikenhead Award – Strengthen and

Grow Our Mission in 2013 and it was Highly Commended

at the 2013 Victorian Public Healthcare Awards in the

category of Excellence in Service Provision.

Expansion of the SCV program

On the basis of this positive feedback, the SCV program

has continued in the acute and inpatient rehabilitation units

and in September 2012 it was expanded to include adult

inpatients with acquired communication disorders

secondary to head and neck cancer. To date, 15

volunteers, including five volunteers who were also speech

pathology students, have received supported conversation

training and 163 patients have participated in the program,

engaging in 660 conversations.

Challenges and future directions

Despite the success of the SCV program, staff members

have reported that running this program can be demanding

and does present some challenges. Recruitment to the

Supported Conversation Volunteer Program needs to coincide

with St Vincent’s volunteer intake program. All volunteers

must first be recruited to the St Vincent’s volunteer program

and attend an interview prior to commencing their preferred

volunteer role. At present, this orientation only occurs three

to four times per year and this can mean suitable volunteers

are not always available. Further, the speech pathology

department makes a considerable investment to train

volunteers and the observation and supervision sessions

can run over many weeks. Therefore, speech pathologists

involved in the training have felt frustrated when volunteers

leave soon after completing the training or are unable to

commit to regular times to volunteer once they are trained.

In addition, debriefing sessions with volunteers can be

lengthy if the volunteer found communicating with a patient

particularly difficult.

discussed, and what was successful and/or challenging

about the conversation. These reflective journals were

kept with the patient referral forms in a shared folder in the

speech pathology department. Both the volunteers and

the referring speech pathologists had access to this folder.

Ongoing support was provided to the volunteers through

weekly face-to-face meetings with the speech pathologists

coordinating the program. The reflective journals were used

as a tool to support these debriefing sessions which usually

took between 5 and 15 minutes.


The pilot program was evaluated by the patients and

volunteers. The volunteers completed a written survey

about their expectations of the program and their

experience. The ten patients who participated were also

invited to provide feedback about the program with the

support of an aphasia-friendly written survey (Rose, Worrall,

Hickson, & Hoffmann, 2011). The patient survey included

questions about having social conversations in hospital,

their confidence communicating with a volunteer, and their

satisfaction with the program as well as any other

comments. Written and face-to-face interviews were

conducted according to each patient’s communication

support needs. The surveys provided quantitative and

qualitative information which was analysed informally by the

SCV program coordinators.


Both volunteers reported that they enjoyed the program and

that it had met their expectations, although they both found

it challenging when they were unable to communicate

successfully with a patient despite using different kinds of

communication support. All of the patients indicated that

being part of the program provided them with more

opportunities to communicate. They reported feeling satisfied

with the program and the amount of time spent with the

volunteers. Although some patients indicated that they would

have liked to spend more time with the volunteers, no

patients expressed that they wanted to spend less time with

the volunteers. Unexpectedly, some patients said that they

had started creating other opportunities for communication

following time spent with the volunteers. For example, they

would use topics that they had discussed with the

volunteers with staff and family on the wards.

Patient reflections

For hospital inpatients, the SCV program provides more

opportunities for meaningful, enjoyable interactions.

Conversation topics typically include family and friends,

work and education, hobbies, and preferences as well as

their experience in hospital. Although sometimes having a

volunteer visit when the patient is feeling tired can be

difficult, patients frequently say that a conversation with a

volunteer “takes my mind off my illness and my worries”.

Some patients have also described feeling more confident

communicating, as well as simply enjoying the

communication experiences, in spite of their difficulties. One

patient told the treating speech pathologist “I really enjoyed

it. When’s she coming back?”

Volunteer reflections

Volunteers have also described several benefits. Speech

pathology student volunteers have reported that the training

and practical experience of supporting patients with commu-

nication disorders in conversation has been invaluable in

developing their professional skills and enhancing their

understanding of the consequences of acquired

communication disorders. Student volunteers who have