Actors help med students train for the future

by Sarah Klaphake

Sitting in an exam room, University student Anna Becker described her constant headaches and fatigue.

“I’ve been so tired, and then with the headaches on top of it, it’s been hard,” she said.

After listening to Becker’s symptoms, prospective nursing student Dusty Lee pondered the situation before recommending Becker see a neurologist.

Fortunately for Becker, however, she will not need another doctor visit. She and Lee are both actors, two of more than 20 the University recruited to role-play illnesses so medical students can practice diagnosing their “problems.”

The Standardized Patient Program recruits and trains people from the community to act as patients for University medical, dentistry and other health sciences students.

Actors tell students they have symptoms of certain kinds of illnesses. Students then receive feedback from their patients, and professors also evaluate the students’ ability to diagnose and communicate with the patients.

Fourth-year medical student Amy Fox said she had countless encounters with the actors since her first year in medical school.

“In the medical school, the Standardized Patient Program is the first time that most students get to start thinking about patients,” Fox said.

She said particularly in the textbook-intensive first two years of medical school, the real-life, one-on-one experience with the actors is invaluable.

“Some of the best feedback I’ve ever gotten, I’ve gotten from the (actors),” Fox said.

She said the actors taught her the communication skills necessary to deal well with patients.

Dr. Jane Miller, director of the Interprofessional Education and Resource Center – which houses the program – said similar programs for medical students have been around for about 20 years.

But the University program allows students from all the health science schools – including veterinary, nursing and public health – to use the actors, which dentistry professor Dr. Nelson Rhodus said is unique.

Rhodus – who has used the program for 10 years – said it also helps professors teach real-life skills.

“The patients are real, so instead of just talking about it or simulating patients, the students can experience these problems in reality,” Rhodus said.

This semester, hundreds of students had more than 1,000 encounters with the actors.

Miller said that because 90 percent of medical errors result from communication failures, the feedback the actors give students on their communication skills is priceless.

The program has veteran actors, but program coordinator Anne Woll said the program constantly searches for actors between ages 18 and 40 to give students a realistic sample.

The actors are paid $15 per hour, but Miller said they also have the satisfaction of knowing they helped prepare health sciences students for life after college.

Although Becker said money was her motivation, Lee said he has more humanitarian goals.

“I’m more interested in helping students better their communications skills,” Lee said.

The Standardized Patient Program began at the medical school in 1999, with medical students as the primary users. Last summer, the program was transferred to the Interprofessional Education and Resource Center under the Academic Health Center, which gave students and professors from the other health sciences schools more access to the actors.