Actors help medical students with patient encounters

Medical students are taught all about the human body and medical problems that may be encountered, but learning how to interact with a patient can only be taught by experience.

Students at COMP-Northwest gain that experience from standardized patients – or SPs – hired by the university.

“A standardized patient is really an actor that learns how to portray the patient in a realistic and believable way,” said Timothy Jaeger, director of the Standardized Patient Program.

Photo by Sarah Brown
ABBY HAUVER, standardized patient educator at COMP-Northwest, gives actors a refresher on what to expect during student exams.

COMP-Northwest recruits local “actors” twice a year and trains them to present medical problems to the students in a clinical atmosphere.

Andrea Banks of Corvallis started acting as an SP because she wanted to help the students, she said. Although it’s fun, it’s also a lot of hard work, and she sees tears from some of the students.

“For some of them (first-year students),  it’s the first encounter with anyone that looks anything like a patient,” Banks said.

It’s also a very stressful situation because the students are getting ready for their medical boards and they’re very nervous, she said.

Banks said she herself has teared up while working with students.

“I find myself emotional when someone’s having a hard time,” she said. “And sometimes I get nervous   myself. What if I’m not doing good enough to help them?”

For these SP encounters, COMP-Northwest provides nine rooms set up to look like real medical clinic rooms, except a camera is mounted on the wall.

“We’ll watch and see how the case is being portrayed; maybe we’ll give feedback to the SPs as needed,” Jaeger said. “It’s for quality control in terms of accuracy and everything.”

When a student enters the room, they find an SP waiting.

“The SPs will be in their gowns,” Jaeger said. “They will have learned their case and what they’re portraying.”

An SP will have learned every necessary detail of an actual patient case, including symptoms and family medical history. They also learn what the students are expected to do during the encounter.

When a student examines an SP, the student should be asking certain questions and performing certain physical exams based on what the SP is role-playing, Jaeger said.

“So if an SP presents with heart palpitations, the student will need to know how to proceed, what questions to ask, and how to conduct themselves,” he said.

The SP shouldn’t do or say anything beyond their training that could hinder a student’s examination process, though.

After the exam, the SP will report to the faculty what the student did and did not do or say, and sometimes they will also give feedback to the student.

Maggie Gerk, a second-year student (OMS II) from Sheboygan, Wisc., said the feedback has been really helpful for her. In one encounter, the SP told her she should say the patient’s name during their time together, and another SP encouraged her to appear more confident so the patients will trust her.

“They’re little skills we can use in the future,” Gerk said. “Next year I will be out on rotations working with real patients, so I feel like all of my experiences with this will have helped.”

COMP-Northwest emphasizes to students the importance of knowing how to be empathetic with a patient, Jaeger said.

“It’s not only a better experience for the patient, but it has better health outcomes too,” he said. “When the patient feels that sense of empathy and understanding, there’s better collaboration and compliance with treatment plans.”

Doctors are also more likely to feel fulfilled in their job when they’re able to care for their patients, he added.

“The doctor’s job is such a hard job and can be so challenging,” Jaeger said. “Doctors that do a good job of showing empathy with their patients have a lower rate of physician burnout.”

While most actors entertain thousands of people, it’s the standardized patient actor who influences a handful of doctors to help the thousands.

SPs at COMP-Northwest are freelance contractors who are paid $15 to $25 an hour, Jaeger said. They receive training throughout the year, plus individual training when learning a case.

SPs are recruited twice a year during a rigorous two-day audition. Those that are selected are added to the contractor’s list and will be called in as needed.

The school’s next recruitment is expected to take place in June or July. For more information, contact Abby Hauver at [email protected].

Photo by Sarah Brown
MEDICAL STUDENT Maggie Gerk demonstrates a checkup on patient-actor Andrea Banks at COMP-Northwest.