Tuesday, 11 March 2003
Dáil Eireann Debate
405. Mr. O'Shea asked the Minister for Health and Children further to Parliamentary Question No. 173 of 27 February 2003, if steps have been taken to date to establish the speech and language therapy assistant grade. [7028/03]
Minister for Health and Children (Mr. Martin): As the Deputy will be aware, the expert group on various health professions considered that the introduction of therapy assistants had the potential to provide practical support for therapists, including speech and language therapists, and therefore recommended that a grade of therapy assistant be introduced where appropriate. In making this recommendation, the expert group also emphasised three fundamental conditions which would underpin the introduction of the new grade and which should be considered prior to the introduction of the grade.
The expert group was of the view that the introduction of a therapy assistant grade should not be regarded as a substitute for existing personnel but rather should complement the role of the fully trained professional therapist. The expert group also considered that the role of the therapy assistant in service provision was an issue that should be addressed to ensure that the role adequately supports and complements the role of the therapist. Third, the group highlighted the need for the establishment of a suitably accredited training programmes to provide therapy assistants with the necessary skills for the job.
In taking account of these three issues and in progressing the introduction of the assistant grade, my view has been that the interaction between the assistant grade and the therapist grade is fundamental to the successful introduction of the new grade and its effectiveness. A key prerequisite therefore to the introduction of the new grade is the adequate availability of fully qualified therapists to appropriately oversee and supervise the provision of services provided by assistants, consistent with the provision of quality health care services to the public. The Deputy will be aware however of the scarcity of qualified therapists. Since the publication of the expert group report, steps have therefore been taken at both national and local level to address acute shortages in the numbers of therapy professionals employed in the health service. These include the ongoing implementation of the recommendations of the report by Peter Bacon and Associates on current and future supply and demand conditions in the labour market for certain professional therapists, involving the provision of a very substantial increase in training places. They also include the introduction of new pay scales, career and management structures, the undertaking of a concerted overseas recruitment drive, the introduction of a fast-track working visa scheme for health and social care professionals and the streamlining of procedures for the validation of overseas qualifications. These measures have already shown results reflected in the increase in therapists employed in the health service since the publication of the expert group's report. In speech therapy alone, there has been an increase of 54 speech and language therapists, +15.6%, employed in the public health service between end 1999 and end 2001.
The next steps in the development and introduction of the assistant grade are the consideration of the role of the grade in service provision and the question of suitable training for the grade. The establishment of a therapy advisory unit in my Department – a further recommendation of the expert group – working together with the health skills group, recently established under the aegis of my Department to examine key workforce planning issues including skills mix, can play an important role in progressing these issues.
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