Skip to main content

Largest conference in the U.S. on swallowing disorders comes to Northwestern

Almost 800 experts, clinicians from across the country gather to spotlight dysphagia

Swallowing disorders affect who suffer from strokes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and cancer
Swallowing disorders affect who suffer from strokes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and cancer

A condition that disrupts a person’s ability to meet one of life’s most basic needs, swallowing disorders affect many people with a broad range of underlying conditions, including premature birth and strokes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and cancer. 

Yet dysphagia, the medical term used to describe difficulty swallowing, is commonly overlooked, leading to poor nutrition, weight loss, poor quality of life, pulmonary infections and potentially death, said Dr. Bonnie Martin-Harris, a pioneer and leader in applied swallowing research and speech-language pathology in Northwestern University’s School of Communication.  

Martin-Harris, who also is director of the Swallowing Cross-Systems Collaborative, will welcome almost 800 experts and clinicians from across the country to Northwestern’s Chicago campus July 12 to 14 for a conference to raise awareness and share new technologies that could improve the lives of patients, from infants with feeding problems to the elderly in residential care facilities. 

Martin-Harris and a growing interdisciplinary contingent of speech pathologists, specialty physicians and clinicians across the country are working to promote early detection and intervention with evidence-based therapies.  

Despite the prevalence of swallowing disorders, until recently, no broadly applied standard method existed to identify and assess the condition in patients. Martin-Harris has developed a tool, the Modified Barium Swallowing Impairment Profile (MBSImPTM), to standardize training of clinicians, methods and materials used to conduct the exam and interpretation, reporting and targeted treatment of disorders. 

The MBSImP was developed and tested during a five-year study funded by the National Institutes of Health on more than 300 dysphagic patients. It was then further refined and is now used by thousands of clinicians in 14 countries and 100 graduate training programs in the U.S. 

“Safe and efficient swallowing requires 55 pairs of muscles, complex neural control and coordination of multiple body systems,” said Martin-Harris, who also serves in the departments of otolaryngology and radiation oncology at Northwestern Medicine and Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Our study was able to isolate aspects of swallowing movements from the mouth through the esophagus that could be practically viewed and reliably measured by clinicians for use in developing targeted treatments.” 

Martin-Harris founded the patient-centered swallowing disorders conference in Charleston in 2004 when she taught at the Medical University of South Carolina. It was designed to bridge the gap between researchers and clinicians who directly treat dysphagic patients. Held only when sufficiently new discoveries are ready for primetime dissemination, the 2018 meeting focuses on access and application of novel technology-assisted treatments. 

Northwestern, Martin-Harris’s home as of 2016, is hosting the conference, one of the largest of its kind in the world, for the first time. The conference will feature dozens of presentations by more than 80 leading clinicians and researchers in the field of dysphagia.  

The conference will be purposely fast-paced and will feature short, impactful presentations. The breakout sessions will allow faculty and participants to dig deeper into topics balanced with content and experts to cover the age continuum and body system issues that go beyond yet influence swallowing. Industry partners, advocacy groups and social media organizations will be integrated into the program.   

“This meeting is not about the university, the faculty, the director or participants – but rather, it’s all about our patients who struggle to eat, drink and swallow,” Martin-Harris said.




Back to top