What’s driving our clinical decision-making?

We know a lot about what types of assessment tools SLPs tend to use (see here, here, and here, for example), but we don’t know much about how we synthesize and prioritize the information we gather in those assessments to come up with a diagnosis (or lack thereof). How do we reconcile inconsistent results? What factors tend to carry the most weight? How much do outside influences (i.e. policies and caseload issues) affect our decisions? Two different studies this month dive into the minds of SLPs to begin answering these questions.

Fulcher-Rood et al. begin by pointing out that school-based SLPs receive conflicting information on how to assess and diagnose language disorders from our textbooks, our federal/state/local guidelines and policies, and the research. So how do we actually approach this problem in real life? To learn more, they used a pretty cool case study method, where lots of assessment results were available for each of five, real 4–6-year-olds (cognitive and hearing screenings, parent/teacher questionnaires, three different standardized tests and two different language samples, transcribed and analyzed against SALT norms), but the 14 experienced SLPs who participated only saw the results they specifically asked for to help them make their diagnoses. This better reflects actual practice than just giving the SLPs everything upfront, because in school settings you’re for sure not going to have SPELT-3 scores or LSA stats to consider unless you’re purposefully making that happen. The case studies were chosen so that some showed a match between formal and informal results (all within or all below normal limits), whereas some showed a mismatch between formal and informal testing, or overall borderline results. Importantly, SLPs were instructed not to consider the “rules” of where they work when making a diagnosis.

Here were some major findings:

  • Unsurprisingly, when all data pointed in the same direction, SLPs were unanimous in determining that a disorder was or wasn’t present.

  • When there was conflicting information (standard scores pointed one direction, informal measures the other), almost all the SLPs made decisions aligning with the standardized test results.

  • Across cases, almost all the SLPs looked at CELF-P2 and/or PLS-5 scores to help them make a diagnosis, and in most cases they asked for parent/teacher concerns and language sample transcripts as well. A third of the SLPs didn’t ask for LSA at all.

  • Only a few SLPs used SPELT-3 scores, and no one asked for language sample analyses that compared performance to developmental norms.

These results reinforce what we learned in the survey studies linked above: SLPs use a lot of standardized tests, combined with informal measures like parent/teacher reports, and not so much language sampling. What’s troubling here is the under-utilization of tools that have a really good track record at diagnosis language disorders accurately (like the SPELT-3 and LSA measures), as well as over-reliance on standardized test scores that we know can be problematic—even when there’s tons of other information available and time/workplace policies aren’t a factor.

The second study, from Selin et al., tapped into a much bigger group of SLPs (over 500!), to ask a slightly different question:

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Under ideal conditions, where logistical/workplace barriers are removed, how are SLPs approaching clinical decision-making? And what about the children, or the SLPs themselves, influences those decisions? 

Their method was a little different from the first study. SLPs read a paragraph about each case, including standard scores (TOLD-P:4 or CELF-4, PPVT-4, GFTA-2, and nonverbal IQ) and information about symptoms and functional impairments (use of finiteness, MLU, pragmatic issues, etc.). Rather than giving a diagnosis, the SLPs made eligibility decisions—should the child continue to receive services, and if so, in what area(s) and what type of service (direct, consultation, monitoring, etc.)?

The survey method this team used yielded a TON of information, but we’ll share a few highlights:

  • Freed from the constraints of caseloads and time, SLPs recommended continued service more often than we do in real life. We know that workplace policies and huge caseloads can prevent us from using best practices, but it’s helpful to see that play out in the research. It’s not just you!

  • Six cases were specifically set up to reflect the clinical profile of Specific Language Impairment*, but when determining services and goal areas, SLPs choices didn’t consistently align with that profile. So, even when a case was consistent with SLI, services weren’t always recommended, and when they were, the goals didn’t necessarily correspond with the underlying deficits of that disorder. So as a group, our operational knowledge of EBP for language disorders has a lot of room for improvement. Unlike with speech sound disorders, SLPs were not sensitive to clinical symptoms of SLI (tense/agreement errors, decreased MLU) when making eligibility decisions.

  • Yet again, SLPs relied heavily on standardized scores, even when other evidence of impairments was present.  

So what can you do with all this information? First of all, think about what YOU do in your language assessments. What tools do you lean on to guide your decisions, and why? Are you confident that those choices are evidence-based? Second, keep doing what you’re doing right now—learning the research! There is tons of work being done on assessment and diagnosis of language disorders, use of standardized tests, and LSA (hit the links to take a wander through our archives!). Taking a little time here and there to read up can add up to a whole new mindset before you know it.  

*SLI, or developmental language disorder (DLD) with average nonverbal intelligence.

 

Fulcher-Rood, K., Castilla-Earls, A., & Higginbotham, J. (2019). Diagnostic Decisions in Child Language Assessment: Findings From a Case Review Assessment Task. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools. doi:10.1044/2019_LSHSS-18-0044

Selin, C. M., Rice, M. L., Girolamo, T., & Wang, C. J. (2019). Speech-Language Pathologists’ Clinical Decision Making for Children With Specific Language Impairment. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools. doi:10.1044/2018_LSHSS-18-0017