Alumna uses telepractice skills learned at GVSU to help patients with communication disorders, train coworkers

Ann Jonker, '19, is a clinical fellow of speech language pathology
Ann Jonker, '19, is a clinical fellow of speech language pathology
Image Credit: Courtesy photo
Laura Lenkey, assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders
Laura Lenkey, assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders
Image Credit: Courtesy photo

When Ann Jonker, '19, was working toward a master's degree in speech language pathology, she was skeptical when one of her Grand Valley professors introduced telepractice as a way to help persons with aphasia, stuttering and other speech and language disorders.

Jonker said she knew telepractice existed, but never thought of it as a feasible modality for providing therapy.

"We actually had the experience in class of working with a client who had an aphasia or a cognitive communication disorder," said Jonker. "Using telepractice forced me out of my comfort zone and opened my eyes to the possibilities."

Jonker works as a clinical fellow of speech language pathology at a pediatric outpatient clinic in Madison, Wisconsin. She had been on the job for a little more than two months when COVID-19 forced the clinic to stop face-to-face appointments. Jonker's telepractice skills and experience played a key role in keeping the clinic operating.

"Throughout our seven clinics, I was definitely one of the few who had significant experience using telepractice," she said. 

Jonker said her employer was planning to introduce telepractice over the course of a year, but had to quickly get all the pieces into place in about 48 hours. "There was concern and that fear of, 'How we were going to do it?'" she said. "I had been using telepractice for more than a year and my boss asked if I could train our clinicians. I said, 'Absolutely I can.'"

The professor who introduces telepractice in the classroom is Laura Lenkey, assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders in the College of Health Professions. 

Lenkey was in private practice as a speech pathologist for 35 years before coming to Grand Valley. Working in rural northern Michigan, she had been utilizing telepractice for many years for clients who didn't have transportation or had to travel great distances for an appointment.

When she came to Grand Valley in 2017, several of her clients wanted to continue service.

"As I began to develop my curriculum and course content, I started to see how valuable it would be for clients to connect with and share their experiences with students," said Lenkey.

It took a while for some students to feel comfortable using telepractice.

"It was very hard for some and I was very surprised by this population known as the selfie generation. They were afraid to approach the camera," said Lenkey. "Putting a student in front of a camera while their peers are observing and introducing the idea of a therapeutic activity that you are supervising and providing the skill set is very valuable." 

Lenkey said some clients agreed to commit to being part of the class for 15 weeks, giving students the opportunity to learn theory and how it is applied.

"If you go into a clinical situation, you already have a therapeutic plan that you are going to work on — a specific task. But if you bring a client into the classroom, it becomes a pedagogy where you can interact between the client's performance and the content of the course work, which is very different from just developing the clinical skills," she explained.

Some clients chose to continue ongoing sessions with students when the course ended. Jonker was one of those. 

"I was skeptical at first and now I'm grateful for learning these skills," said Jonker. "I have talked to graduates from other programs who know of telepractice but didn't have the opportunity to really learn how to utilize it while in college. When I heard we had to suddenly switch to telepractice because of COVID-19, I didn't have a giant panic attack. I knew I could do it and I could help teach others."

Learn more about Grand Valley's Speech-Language Pathology Program.