ORONO, Maine — Graduate students at the University of Maine are reaching out to provide speech therapy services to underserved children and adults in rural areas.

Under a new training effort in the communication sciences and disorders department, students are meeting virtually with speech therapy clients through the Internet.

The program uses a secure, password-protected Web-based platform that allows virtual face-to-face therapy between service providers and clients. Clients can be assisted by designated “e-Helpers,” including family, friends or caregivers who participate in therapy from their own computers, said Judy Walker, a UMaine associate professor who developed the program in collaboration with colleagues in the speech therapy department at Waldo County General Hospital in Belfast.

“We have created one of the first nationwide speech therapy telepractice training programs,” Walker said.

The program requires only a computer with a webcam and broadband Internet access, located in a private setting, such as a home, school, clinic or community center.

“Anyone involved in a child’s or adult’s therapy program can actually view or participate in the session, regardless of where they are,” Walker said.

UMaine’s first telepractice training class in August 2012 included 10 graduate students. A new group of 12 graduate students is taking a telepractice training class this month.

Taylor Rodgers of Standish, who was part of the first class, provided speech therapy to a woman from southern Maine who, as the result of a stroke in April 2012, had difficulty finding the words to communicate with her family for much of the spring and summer. The woman’s speech therapy telepractice sessions began in fall 2012, involving one adult daughter videoconferencing from Rhode Island, another daughter at her mother’s side in southern Maine, and Walker and Rodgers in Orono. During the therapy, Rodgers displayed digital materials tailored to the client on the computer screen, for example the words “bread,” “rice cakes,” “butter” or “milk.”

Now, the woman can retrieve many nouns and other words, verbally or in writing.

Therapy by videoconference is working better than the daughters expected, they say. Their mother is progressing faster as a result of more frequent therapy sessions and by practicing activities involving the daughters between online sessions with Rodgers and Walker.

“I had a telephone conversation with my mother last week and I understood everything she was trying to say,” one southern Maine daughter said of her mother.

The “telepractice” is expected to reduce the cost of providing speech therapy services while making the services more widely available. Nationally, one study estimates that telemedicine services provided through broadband Internet would save $700 billion nationally over the next 15-20 years, according to Walker.

The UMaine program is one of only a few in the country that offers speech therapy telepractice training at the college level. Speech therapy telepractice involves almost no travel expense and expands the reach of therapy services to more people in Maine, where an overabundance of people in need of services is compounded by a severe shortage of speech therapists, Walker said.

The training program complies with guidelines put forth by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association for demonstrating competencies and skills in speech telepractice services, which standardizes the training of UMaine graduates.

That’s important, according to Waldo County General Hospital Speech Therapy Department Director Michael Towey, who oversees the hospital’s five-year-old speech therapy telepractice, on which the UMaine program is modeled. Industry credentials reassure clients that telepractice therapists are competent, said Towey, an adjunct UMaine faculty member assisting the university with the telepractice training curriculum.

Waldo County General Hospital’s speech telepractice program is provided by staff professionals who have served people from Canada, Russia and Taiwan, in addition to more than 40 Maine communities from Kittery and Fort Kent. It is the only speech therapy telepractice in the county that allows therapists to work with clients in home settings rather than at designated clinics, Towey said.

For the woman in southern Maine, therapy at home also ended a “convoluted and complicated” transportation problem when her mother visited a therapy clinic, says one daughter, a nurse. Both daughters declined to be identified to preserve their mother’s privacy.

“I was driving her to therapy two and three times a week, and we had to arrange transportation,” the daughter said. “I felt I was losing touch because I wasn’t there for all the sessions.”

It was worse for the daughter in Rhode Island, a school bus driver who can now participate in therapy sessions with her mother between her shifts at work. “Being so far away, I feel so much more involved now,” she said.

For the mother’s part, starting telepractice speech therapy “was wonderful,” she said. “It’s helping me.”

Contributed by the University of Maine. For information about the speech therapy telepractice or to make an appointment, call UMaine’s Conley Speech, Language Hearing Center at 581-2006 or visit www.umaine.edu/telespeech.