PhD Candidate Speaks ‘Kiddo’ to Help Young Patients Communicate

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While she was an undergraduate student, Amanda Simmons spent most of her time taking center stage as a vocal performance major.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she performed and studied music and vocal pedagogy. Now, as a PhD candidate in the Speech and Hearing Science Program in the Department of Audiology and Speech Pathology, she is using her skills to help patients.

However, it wasn’t until a stint in Cameroon and Zambia as a health education volunteer with the Peace Corps, that she learned she could combine her background in the musical arts with patient care. “It kind of tied the voice and the medical side of things for me,” said Simmons, MS, CCC-SLP.

Amanda Simmons’ research aims to foster better communication with pediatric patients through alternative methods of communication.

Working in a foreign country with non-English-speaking residents, she had to learn to communicate in different ways. “I did a lot of pantomiming when I first moved,” she said. “I think a lot of what I’m doing now is very influenced by my life experience for sure. Communication is something we take for granted, until we have a communication breakdown. Imagine being a kid and you can’t get the words to come out like you’d want them to. How terrifying is that?”

Her research, which focused on solving that problem, netted her a win in the 2019 Three-Minute Thesis (3MT®) competition that took place last winter. Her winning presentation was appropriately titled, “How to Speak Kiddo.”

Using her life experiences, Simmons’ research focused on how education support for alternative communication can be provided to nurses in pediatric hospitals. Alternative communication includes everything from facial expressions, to gestures, to advanced technology, such as an iPad app that can speak for you.

“Sometimes patients who use alternative communication who get sick get to the hospital and their communication system is gone,” Simmons said. “So, not only are they sick, but then they can’t tell the nurses and the doctors what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, or what they need.”

Alternative communication encompasses a huge variety of communication support tools that are available but are not well known outside the audiology and speech pathology fields. Through surveys and interviews, Simmons learned that nurses think using them is important, but have not received adequate training.

Her research has provided training modules for nurses. Her ultimate goal is to expand and implement communication support tools for pediatric nurses, so they do not have barriers in communicating with patients. “We really need to create something that provides all nurses with basic education, so they know what to do while they wait for a speech therapist to come and evaluate the patient.”

Most recently, Simmons was a recipient of the Diversity and Inclusion Mini-Grant Program through the UTHSC Office of Equity and Diversity on a project that will further communication support tools. The Department of Audiology and Speech Pathology, in partnership with the College of Nursing, will work to develop computer-based learning modules on alternative communication and communication boards that can be implemented in clinical settings, especially in the branch of pediatrics.

About the 3MT® Competition

Since 2015, the international Three-Minute Thesis (3MT®) competition has helped graduate students hone their communication skills by challenging them to share their research in three minutes in a way anyone could understand. In the recent 3MT® competition three presenters were chosen by a panel of judges as having the best presentations. In addition to Simmons, Angela Taylor, was named runner-up, and Zaid Temrika, was named people’s choice.

This story was originally published in Graduate Health Sciences magazine.