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On the Front Lines of Dysphagia: Jennifer Maher

Dysphagia affects an estimated 590 million people worldwide[i], yet the swallowing disorder is often overlooked and unknown. On our blog and social media pages, we’ve been sharing the stories of patients, caregivers, healthcare professionals and others impacted by the disorder – our hope is that “On the Front Lines of Dysphagia” will help raise awareness of the disorder, and ultimately, as with everything we do, improve the lives of those living with it.

Our latest interview is with Jennifer Maher, M.A., CCC-SLP, senior clinician and New York City regional manager with Language Fundamentals Inc., a provider of speech therapy services for skilled nursing facilities and a member of the New York State Health Facilities Association. Jennifer works extensively with individuals in the subacute and long-term care settings with a special interest in the management of dysphagia. Jennifer’s opinions and advice are her own. Language Fundamentals is compensated by Kent Precision Foods Group, Inc., producers of the Thick-It® brand family of products, for their research and industry insights.

Jennifer says this about her special interest in the management of dysphagia:

Q: How long have you been an SLP?

A: I have been working as a speech language pathologist for the past six years.

Q: Tell me about your experience working with people who have dysphagia.

A: Since I started working as a speech pathologist, evaluating and treating patients with dysphagia has been my primary focus. I was first exposed to the profound impact dysphagia has on those affected by it while I was a graduate extern. I worked in an amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) clinic and saw the rapid progression of dysphagia and how it impacted these patients’ quality of life. I also worked closely with head and neck cancer patients whose swallowing was altered overnight. It was through these experiences that I realized how I had always taken something so valuable for granted; it made me realize that I wanted to do everything I could to help patients effected by dysphagia. Since then, I dedicated most of my work to evaluating and treating adults with a variety of disorders resulting in dysphagia. I am currently in the process of becoming a board certified swallowing specialist.

Q: How have you seen firsthand how dysphagia affects a patient’s dignity, confidence, and quality of life?

A: This is one of the most challenging and pervasive effects that dysphagia has on so many of my patients. I have had patients tell me that they don’t want to eat in a public area, because people stare when they’re eating. People ask them if they are contagious because they are coughing. They can’t go to restaurants because there is nothing on the menu they feel safe eating, they don’t want to have to mix powder into their drinks to thicken them, or they simply don’t enjoy eating anymore and feel that they have lost a huge part of their life as a result.

Q: How has working with xanthan-based products improved the lives of your patients, specifically with consumption?

A: The xanthan-based thickened liquids have been better received by patients and have allowed us to offer more versatile options. In one of my facilities, for example, we modified how residents were served – including the addition of xanthan-based ready-to-drink water and juices – and measured corresponding intake. The four-week study revealed a 13 percent increase in fluid intake and a 23 percent increase in caloric consumption at mealtimes, as well as increased independence while eating, as measured by fewer requests for help during each meal.[ii] We also offered pre-thickened beverages at patients’ bedsides and when taking medications, which delivered a 44 percent increase in hydration throughout the day.[iii] Overall, the feedback we received verbally from our patients and measurable increase in consumption mentioned above point in the direction of a huge positive change.

Q: Has using Thick-It® products made your job easier in any way?

A: Being able to offer xanthan-based thickeners to my patients has been beneficial in so many ways. I feel that I’m better able to do my job knowing that I don’t need to be constantly weighing the pros and cons between dehydration or aspiration. My patients more readily (and happily) consume the xanthan products. Noncompliance, dehydration, poor patient satisfaction and many of the things that come along with that are no longer a major concern. I know that some patients would still prefer to drink thin liquids, but in the cases when there is a significant risk to do so, I feel confident that I am able to offer them what I believe is a better and safer alternative.

Q: Describe behavioral and compliance changes in your patients since using Thick-It® products.

A: It really has been night and day. Compliance has significantly increased[iv], and rather than focusing our sessions on counseling the risk versus benefits of drinking thin liquids, we are able to focus on the restorative aspect of therapy in hopes that we will be able to improve their swallow function. Patients are generally more satisfied with our dysphagia program.


Are you an SLP or healthcare professional working with dysphagia patients? Thick-It® brand products can help simply your life. Request samples for your patients today via our Sampling Program.

[i] International Dysphagia Diet Standardisation Initiative.
[ii] Rosenberg, Howard. “Independent Tray Service: A Program To Enhance Meals.” Provider Magazine. November 2015.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Ibid.

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