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Online therapy offers hope for people with traumatic brain injury

16 March 2017
Helping families regain communication

Be part of a world-first study from the Faculty of Health Sciences to help people regain speech and improve communication after suffering a traumatic brain injury using online therapy. 

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A University of Sydney study is offering families with a loved one who has suffered a traumatic brain injury the chance to take part in a 10 week communication training program. This kind of therapy is often out of reach due to costs, travelling distance or accessibility restrictions.

This clinical trial is a world-first aimed at evaluating if online video applications like Skype can provide better access to services for people with traumatic brain injury and their families who might have not have access to local services.

“We know there are around 2500 new cases of traumatic brain injury in Australia each year, and that the majority go on to have long-term speech and communication problems that impact conversations and relationships up to 10 years after the accident or injury,” said Rachael Rietdijk, speech pathologist from the University’s Faculty of Health Sciences.

Traumatic brain injuries are typically caused by a motor vehicle accident, assault, or sporting injury, so we see a lot of young men in their prime affected, often with young families.

“Losing the ability to communicate effectively can really compound other problems.

“It can also be very hard for family members to know how to communicate well with their loved one after a brain injury.”

Trial lead Professor Leanne Togher said previous research shows that intensive treatment by a speech pathologist is needed for effective results in regaining communication skills.

“There is no way our current service model can cater for the intensity and frequency of communication therapy needed, especially when some families live in rural and remote locations and have to travel three to four hours each time they see a speech pathologist,” said Professor Togher.

“Currently there is very limited use of speech therapy services via online video applications like Skype in the public system, and they are not subsidised by private health which means people are missing out.

“Our hope is to provide some evidence that online therapy can complement or even be as effective as face-to-face delivery so we can start shifting this mentality.”

The pilot stage of the study, completed in 2015, showed that it is feasible to assess communication skills via Skype and that families are satisfied with using Skype to meet with speech pathologists.

Thirty six families will take part in the next stage of the trial which will compare the experiences of those receiving the therapy via Skype with those receiving face-to-face treatment.

Rachael Rietdijk, added: “If the trial is successful, this could mean that people with traumatic brain injury and their families could get access to support regardless of where they live, which will help them manage communication issues better over the long-term. By improving communication skills, people with brain injuries have the potential to improve their relationships and quality of life.”

Participate in the study:

The research team is currently recruiting people with traumatic brain injury and their family members to take part in the study. Families can be located anywhere in Sydney but will require internet connection at their residence to participate. Please note places are limited.

Contact PhD student Rachael Rietdijk on rman7827@uni.sydney.edu.au or register your details online.

Facts about communication disorders following traumatic brain injury:

  • There are approximately 2500 new cases of traumatic brain injury in Australia each year
  • The peak incidence is in 15-24 years old, particularly in young men
  • Traumatic brain injuries are caused by any accident where there is a knock to the head. This knock causes direct damage to the area of the brain that is hit. Because the brain is soft and floats within the hard skull, there is also more general damage that comes from the brain moving backwards and forwards after the initial impact
  • Communication problems are a common long-term problem after traumatic brain injury (TBI). At 10 years after a moderate to severe TBI:
  1. More than 50 per cent of people still have difficulty finding words
  2. More than 40 per cent of people still have difficulty with relationships
  3. More than per cent of people still have difficulty following conversations
  4. More than 30 per cent of people still have difficulty with social situations
  • These issues do not resolve over time so it is important to provide services to families to help with managing these problems.

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Media and PR Adviser (Health Sciences)