Original Research

Decision making and the bedside assessment: The Speech Language Therapists’ thinking when making a diagnosis at the bed

Kim Coutts, Mershen Pillay
South African Journal of Communication Disorders | Vol 68, No 1 | a790 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/sajcd.v68i1.790 | © 2021 Kim Coutts, Mershen Pillay | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 28 July 2020 | Published: 30 June 2021

About the author(s)

Kim Coutts, Department of Speech Pathology, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa; and, Department of Speech-Language Pathology, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa, South Africa
Mershen Pillay, Department of Speech-Language Pathology, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa; and, Speech and Language Therapy, Massey University, Auckland, New Zealand; and, Department of Health Professions, Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester, South Africa


Background: The bedside assessment is often seen as a screener because of its high variability in sensitivity and specificity, whilst the instrumental measures are viewed as gold standards because of the ability of speech-language therapist (SLT) to visualise the swallow more objectively.

Objectives: This research article explores how the value needs to be placed on the decision-making abilities of the SLT rather than on the assessment measure itself.

Method: A mixed methodology concurrent triangulation design was employed to collect data in two phases: the first phase included observing seven SLTs conducting assessments using a standardised bedside measure together with pulse oximetry and cervical auscultation. The second phase was a focus group discussion based on the findings from the first phase. Data were analysed thematically using a bottom-up approach.

Results: The following factors were found to influence the decision-making process at the bedside: bedside assessment data sets, patient, multidisciplinary team, context and then SLT. The availability of more data from the assessment from different data sets improved the confidence of the SLT at the bedside when needing to make clinical decisions. Clinical instincts are developed through experience and observation of those more experienced. These skills need to be developed from junior years.

Conclusion: This research study showed that a bedside assessment can provide valuable information that will allow for diagnostic decisions to be made at the bedside. This study also highlighted the importance of critical thinking using clinical instincts, and that these are the factors that need to be valued and emphasised rather than the assessment measures themselves.


speech-language therapy; dysphagia; clinical decision making; clinical swallow evaluation; pulse oximetry and cervical auscultation


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Crossref Citations

1. Exploring perceptions of factors aiding the development of critical thinking in adult dysphagia: A study among fourth‐year speech‐language pathology students
A. Catania, K. A. Coutts, N. Barber
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