A collaborative approach to solving complex problems

Posted on June 28, 2017
From left to right: Roger O. Smith, Sabine Heuer, John Heilmann, Shelley K. Lund, and Dennis B. Tomashek.

From left to right: Roger O. Smith, Sabine Heuer, John Heilmann, Shelley K. Lund, and Dennis B. Tomashek.

Several faculty members from the College of Health Sciences (CHS) received a Research Team Development Award from the UWM Office of Research to conduct a collaborative research project, “Indexing Functional Communication across Specific Communication Disorders – A Transdisciplinary Approach to Outcome Measure Development.”

With an emphasis on team building and interdisciplinary connection, the award emphasizes the benefits of collaboration as significant research outcome.

Members of the team include:

  • John Heilmann, PhD, CCC-SLP, associate professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders and director of the Language Analysis Laboratory
  • Sabine Heuer, PhD, CCC-SLP, assistant professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders and director of the Aphasia Laboratory. Heuer is serving as the principal investigator on the project
  • Shelley K. Lund, PhD, CCC-SLP, associate professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, coordinator of the Undergraduate Program and director of the Augmentative and Alternative Communication Laboratory
  • Roger O. Smith, PhD, OT, FAOTA, RESNA Fellow, professor in the Department of Occupational Science and Technology, and director of the Rehabilitation Research Design and Disability Center (R2D2 )
  • Dennis B. Tomashek, MS, lecturer in the Department of Occupational Science and Technology and researcher for the Rehabilitation Research Design and Disability Center (R2D2)

With representation from the Departments of Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD) and Occupational Science and Technology, as well as the Rehabilitation Research Design and Disability Center (R2D2), the team hopes to develop measures to assess communicative participation, regardless of the specific disorder or treatment intervention.

Assessing success “across the spectrum”

A specialist in augmentative and alternative communication in CSD, Lund hopes the team’s research will lead to the development of an assessment scale of how patients and clients of any age and with any disorder participate in daily tasks.

“The beauty of researching functional outcome measures is that it’s not disorder specific,” Lund said. “We want to develop something that would be broadly applicable.”

“While individuals face unique difficulties depending on the disorder they experience or the treatment they undergo, everyone, across the board has to communicate. This is what we are targeting: a reliable measurement for the success of any and all treatment interventions to enable people to functionally communicate.”

Also in CSD, Heuer’s research focus in on aphasia, specifically communication deficits that occur after brain injuries like stroke. She noted the complexity of assessing treatment “success,” particularly when the treatment goal is not to eliminate a disorder.

“In our field, we tend to focus on the impairment, the loss of speech or the lack of articulation, etc., and we attempt to correct that impairment. For individuals with irreversible conditions, we need to be able to document that an intervention has made an impact even when we can’t change the underlying disorder. That is one of the reasons why the research we are doing here is so important.”

Getting students involved

CSD graduate students Karen Lien, Rebecca Sapienza and Sarah Whitehurst contributed to the study. Their work was featured at the annual UWM Health Research Symposium this spring.

The students are helping with preliminary data collection and analysis on the degree to which current assessment measures track communication participation and function. The students’ posters approximated that only 25% of items in current measures assess communication participation.

“The students’ research tells us some very important things,” Heuer said. “First, current measures haven’t kept up with how we now define functional communication in the field. Second, we need better tools…25% isn’t going to cut it.”

The team hopes to address the shortage of reliable measurement tools for assessing how treatment interventions across the spectrum improve quality of life for clients.

“Currently, we are good at measuring deficits,” Heuer said. “But we still don’t have sensitive and reliable tools that target communication participation and its connection to clients’ quality of life.”

In the long-term, Heuer and her collaborators envision that their work would contribute to comparative treatment efficacy research to determine which treatment options lead to better outcomes.