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Dysphagia. A difficult diagnosis to swallow!

  • General
Wednesday, 17 Mar 2021

The average Australian swallows 500–700 times a day. That’s around three times an hour when sleeping, once a minute while awake and even more during meals. So imagine how frightening and life threatening it is for people who have difficulty with swallowing.

It’s something most of us don’t understand. And that’s why, today, the 18 wonderful people who work in our Speech Pathology Service are making the most of Swallowing Awareness Day.

The theme for 2021 Swallowing Awareness Day is: Dysphagia. A difficult diagnosis to swallow!

Swallowing Awareness Day is an opportunity to bring attention to swallowing disorders and to connect people with speech pathologists, the professionals who can help. Speech pathologists assess and treat people with dysphagia (difficulty swallowing) – pronounced dis-fay-juh.

Around 15–30 percent of people aged 65+ living in the community have a swallowing difficulty, with that figure rising to over 50 percent for older Australians living in a nursing home. After falls, choking is the second biggest killer of nursing home residents. Almost half of everyone who has had a stroke will have a swallowing problem. Sixty-nine percent of people with Parkinson’s disease will have swallowing difficulties as will 25 percent of patients with multiple sclerosis.

Speech Pathology Service manager Elisia Nichol says swallowing disorders remain largely invisible, poorly understood by the general community, and rarely addressed in government policy.

‘Swallowing problems can mean food, drinks or saliva gets into the lungs (aspiration) and this can cause lung infections (pneumonia). Severe swallowing complications can lead to death, while other swallowing complications can lead to poor nutrition, dehydration, health complications, and social isolation,’ she explains.

‘A swallowing problem can occur at any stage of life. Swallowing is a skill developed from infancy. We work with both adults and children with swallowing difficulties with our youngest patients often only a few days old. Babies born prematurely or children with abnormalities with the structure of their head, neck and face, such as cleft lip or palate can have difficulty feeding.’

The cost to affected individuals is measured in dollars through added health costs, limitations to their participation in the wider society, and in negative impacts on their social and emotional wellbeing. The cost to the wider community includes increased costs through longer hospital stay. Australians with undiagnosed difficulties are frequently referred to other health practitioners – often for expensive and invasive investigations – when a speech pathologist could readily manage the problem.

Elisia says Swallowing Awareness Day is an opportunity for all of us to learn more about swallowing difficulties and how they impact on the lives of our friends, neighbours and our wider community: ‘As speech pathologists, we are the professionals who assess and manage dysphagia.’


PHOTO > 12 speech pathologists, 3 allied health assistants, 1 social worker and 2 occupational therapists make up our Speech Pathology Service. The five in this photo are, from left: speech pathologist (Acute Wards + Transition Care Program) Tom McCann, speech pathologist (Adult Outpatients + Intensive Home-Based Rehabilitation) Sheree Bennett, speech pathologist & advanced developmental paediatric practitioner (Paediatric Outpatients) Erin Adams, speech pathologist (Rehabilitation + Geriatric Evaluation and Management/GEM + NDIS + Cognitive, Dementia and Memory Service/CDAMS) Mel Toohey, and speech pathologist (Paediatric Outpatients + Camperdown Hospital/Camperdown Community Health) Claire McGlone.

All but Claire work from Warrnambool Community Health. Claire works five days/fortnight from Camperdown Community Health. (She’s available for outpatient appointments with children and adults on Tuesdays, Thursdays and every second Friday. We accept self-referrals to this service. Anyone wanting to make an appointment can ring our Access & Intake Team on 5597 0900. Claire also provides assessment and therapy to residents at Merindah Lodge and to acute inpatients in our Camperdown Hospital.)

Page last updated: 16 March 2021

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