Critical care​ overview

Key points

  • People with a range of illnesses, diseases and accidents are admitted to critical care units for urgent medical and nursing care. They may experience either temporary or long term difficulties with swallowing and communication.
  • These needs are very important for patients and their recovery, so speech and language therapists (SLTs) can help to evaluate difficulties.
  • Early speech and language therapy input can improve patient care and outcomes; helping to reduce the length of time spent in critical care or hospital, which helps to save hospital resources.
  • SLTs provide specialist knowledge and skills about the functions of the throat for speaking and swallowing, so they understand what is the best type of therapy for improvement.
  • SLTs are key members of the multidisciplinary team and support critically ill patients in their therapy and clinical management of communication, voice, swallowing, ventilator and tracheostomy weaning.

What is critical care?

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Critical care is the provision of specialised, continuous, and multidisciplinary care for patients in a life-threatening, but treatable, condition. Levels of care help to determine the appropriate staffing ratio – in the UK, Level 3 means one trained dedicated critical care nurse per patient, plus access to multidisciplinary therapy staff when required (GPICS, 2019).

Critical care encompasses the range of intensive care units including:

  • cardiothoracic intensive care units (CTICU),
  • general intensive care units (GICU),
  • neurological intensive care units (NICU),
  • paediatric intensive care units (PICU), and;
  • high dependency units (HDU)

Critical illness can be a very distressing experience for patients and relatives.  Recovery can take a long time, and patients can be left with physical and psychological after effects.

Those in critical care may require some or all of the following:

  • 24 hour 1:1 nursing care, with input from specialist healthcare professionals.
  • Continuous, uninterrupted physiological monitoring, supervised by staff who are able to interpret and immediately act on the information.
  • Continuous clinical direction and care from a specialist consultant-led medical team, who are trained and able to provide appropriate cover appropriate for each critical care unit.
  • Advanced therapies which are only safe to administer in the above environment.

People in critical care will also be treated by a range of critical care specialists, including; doctors, physiotherapists, pharmacists, technicians, SLTs, occupational therapists, psychologists and dietitians.

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How can speech and language therapy help in critical care?

SLTs have a vital role in optimising the care, experience, safety and outcome of patients whilst they are on critical care through to their ongoing rehabilitation.

The role of SLTs would include:

  • The specialist assessment and treatment of any communication problems which may happen as a result of a condition or the treatment to help that condition, such as needing a tracheostomy (McGrath et al, 2018; Sutt et al, 2016; Freeman-Sanderson A et al, 2016; Costello et al, 2010; Mobasheri et al, 2016).
  • The specialist and detailed assessment and management of swallowing problems that would include: too much or too little saliva, difficulty drinking fluids, eating textured foods and taking medications. This information is shared with the wider team to help with decisions that are made for nutrition and medication management (Sproson, Pownall, Enderby, and Freeman, 2017; Restivo and Hamdy, 2018; Marcus et al, 2019; UK National Tracheostomy Safety Project, 2013).
  • Working as part of a team to problem-solve complex communication or swallowing difficulties, especially for those with tracheostomy and/or ventilation (Bonvento et al, 2017; Frank et al, 2007; Hafner, Neuhuber, Hirtenfelder, Schmedler and Eckel, 2008; Heidler, Bidu, Friedrich and Voller, 2015; Rose, 2011).
  • Using a range of assessments, including instrumental assessments, such as Fibreoptic Endoscopic Evaluation of Swallowing (FEES) and videofluoroscopy (VFS), which SLTs are trained to use to support the clinical decisions for weaning someone off their ventilator or tracheostomy tube, identifying the best therapy for swallowing problems and voice production  (Bonvento, Wallace, Lynch, Coe and McGrath, 2017; Sutt et al, 2016; Frank, Maeder and Sticher, 2007; Hales, Drinnan and Wilson, 2008; McGowan, Gleeson, Smith, Hirsch and Shuldham, 2007).
  • Providing training to nursing, medical and therapy staff on the best way to support SLT input to benefit a patient’s rehabilitation, this may include involvement in mental capacity decisions or those experiencing delirium (Jayes, Palmer and Enderby, 2017; Traube et al, 2017).
  • Teaching the patient techniques, strategies and methods to improve their swallowing and speech, which helps their road to recovery (Logemann, 1998).
  • Setting goals for rehabilitation and monitoring change on a regular basis to re-evaluate and reset goals.
  • Using outcome measures to evaluate the effectiveness of therapy.

In the critical care setting speech and language therapy services need to be provided in a collaborative multidisciplinary context, with regular team discussion to ensure the best outcome for people with these difficulties. Regular contribution to audit and service evaluation are important to ensure compliance with governance requirements.

What can you expect from speech and language therapy in critical care?

Initial contact

SLTs should be contacted by the critical care team detailing the problems that require their input. The SLT will gather information about the patient’s condition and treatment they are currently receiving and liaise with other staff members and family members to understand the nature of the problem relating to speaking, swallowing and tracheostomy management.

Following this, the SLT will assess the patient to identify the specific difficulties, which will include an assessment at the bedside and discussion with the nurse caring for the patient. A recommendation for treatment will be given, which would include direct speech and language therapy, indirect guidance to the team and family, and a plan for ongoing review and expected outcomes.

A decision to use instrumental assessments will be discussed and agreed with the team, the patient, and any family members to ensure informed consent or best interest decisions, if there are issues around mental capacity. Following this assessment, results will be documented and shared with the team with options for further therapy input.

Speech and Language Therapy

Depending on the problems identified, SLTs will make recommendations such as:

  • The additional mouth care needs for patients with dysphagia to help manage the symptoms of dry mouth and thirst.
  • Practising swallowing movements, voice and breathing exercises to help get the throat working better.
  • Using specific swallow therapy strategies to improve the effectiveness and safety of the swallow.
  • Avoiding eating and drinking certain foodstuff until the ability to swallow improves.
  • Recommending the drinking of modified fluids to overcome a specific swallowing problems.
  • Recommending a modified diet to overcome specific swallowing problems.

The SLT will provide therapy input on a regular basis, and this may vary with the additional support and input from nurses, therapists and family members. Progress will be evaluated and recommendations will vary so that therapy input is responsive and up to date. Once these difficulties start to resolve, speech and language therapy input will reduce and may no longer be required. If problems persist after transfer from critical care, speech and language therapy input will continue to be provided by the speech and language therapy service.

Speech and language therapy in adult respiratory support units

Following guidance developed by The British Thoracic Society (BTS) and Intensive Care Society (ICS) the RCSLT have developed a position statement, to highlight the role that SLTs play in adult respiratory support units (RSUs).

The statement also provides guidance for multiprofessional colleagues and service managers.

This guidance is intended for patients aged 18 or older who are being treated in an RSU or who would qualify under the criteria as an acute respiratory patient.

Download the position statement (PDF)


Bonvento, B., Wallace, S., Lynch, J., Coe, B., & McGrath, B. A. (2017). Role of the MDT in the care of tracheostomy patients. Journal of Multidisciplinary Healthcare, 11(10), 391-398. doi:10.2147/JMDH.S118419

Costello, J. M., Patak, L., & Pritchard, J. (2010). Communication vulnerable patients in the pediatric ICU: Enhancing care through augmentative and alternative communication. Journal of Pediatric Rehabilitation Medicine, 3(4), 289-301. doi:10.3233/prm-2010-0140

Frank, U., Maeder, M., & Sticher, H. (2007). Dysphagic patients with tracheotomies: A multidisciplinary approach to treatment and decannulation management. Dysphagia, 22(1), 20-29. doi:10.1007/s00455-006-9036-5

Freeman-Sanderson, A. L., Togher, L., Elkins, M. R., & Phipps, P. R. (2016). Return of Voice for Ventilated Tracheostomy Patients in ICU: A Randomized Controlled Trial of Early-Targeted Intervention. Crit Care Med, 44(6), 1075-1081. doi:10.1097/ccm.0000000000001610

Hafner, G., Neuhuber, A., Hirtenfelder, S., Schmedler, B., & Eckel, H. E. (2008). Fiberoptic endoscopic evaluation of swallowing in intensive care unit patients. Eur Arch Otorhinolaryngol, 265(4), 441-446. doi:10.1007/s00405-007-0507-6

Hales, P. A., Drinnan, M. J., & Wilson, J. A. (2008). The added value of fibreoptic endoscopic evaluation of swallowing in tracheostomy weaning. Clinical Otolaryngology, 33, 319-324.

Heidler, M. D., Bidu, L., Friedrich, N., & Voller, H. (2015). Oral feeding of long-term ventilated patients with a tracheotomy tube. Underestimated danger of dysphagia. Medizinische Klinik-Intensivmedizin Und Notfallmedizin, 110(1), 55-60. doi:10.1007/s00063-014-0397-5

Jayes, M., Palmer, R., & Enderby, P. (2017). An exploration of mental capacity assessment within acute hospital and intermediate care settings in England: a focus group study. Disability and Rehabilitation, 39(21), 2148-2157. doi:10.1080/09638288.2016.1224275

Logemann, J. (1998). Evaluation and Treatment of Swallowing Disorders (2nd ed.). Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.

Marcus, S., Friedman, J., Lacombe-Duncan, A., & Mahant, S. (2019). Neuromuscular electrical stimulation for the treatment of dysphagia in infants and young children with neurological impairment: a prospective pilot study. BMJ Paediatrics Open, 3, e000382. doi:10.1136/bmjpo-2018-000382

McGowan, S. L., Gleeson, M., Smith, M., Hirsch, N., & Shuldham, C. M. (2007). A pilot study of fibreoptic endoscopic evaluation of swallowing in patients with cuffed tracheostomies in neurological intensive care. Neurocritical Care, 6(2), 90-93. doi:10.1007/s12028-007-0024-x

McGrath, B. A., Wallace, S., Wilson, M., Nicholson, L., Felton, T., Bowyer, C., & Bentley, A. M. (2018). Safety and feasibility of above cuff vocalisation for ventilator-dependant patients with tracheostomies. Journal of the Intensive Care Society, 0(0), 1751143718767055. doi:10.1177/1751143718767055

Mobasheri, M. H., King, D., Judge, S., Arshad, F., Larsen, M., Safarfashandi, Z., . . . Darzi, A. (2016). Communication aid requirements of intensive care unit patients with transient speech loss. Augment Altern Commun, 32(4), 261-271. doi:10.1080/07434618.2016.1235610

Restivo, D. A., & Hamdy, S. (2018). Pharyngeal electrical stimulation device for the treatment of neurogenic dysphagia: technology update. Medical Devices: Evidence and Research, Volume 11, 21-26. doi:10.2147/mder.s122287

Rose, L., Blackwood, B., Egerod, I., Haugdahl, H. S., Hofhuis, J., Isfort, M., . . . Schultz, M. J. (2011). Decisional responsibility for mechanical ventilation and weaning: an international survey. Crit Care, 15(6), R295. doi:10.1186/cc10588

Sproson, L., Pownall, S., Enderby, P., & Freeman, J. (2017). Combined electrical stimulation and exercise for swallow rehabilitation post-stroke: a pilot randomized control trial. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders. doi:10.1111/1460-6984.12359

Sutt, A. L., Caruana, L. R., Dunster, K. R., Cornwell, P. L., Anstey, C. M., & Fraser, J. F. (2016). Speaking valves in tracheostomised ICU patients weaning off mechanical ventilation–do they facilitate lung recruitment? Crit Care, 20, 91. doi:10.1186/s13054-016-1249-x

Traube, C., Silver, G., Gerber, L. M., Kaur, S., Mauer, E. A., Kerson, A., . . . Greenwald, B. M. (2017). Delirium and Mortality in Critically Ill Children: Epidemiology and Outcomes of Pediatric Delirium. Crit Care Med, 45(5), 891-898. doi:10.1097/ccm.0000000000002324

UK National Tracheostomy Safety Project. (2013). National Tracheostomy Safety Manual. Retrieved from 

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