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I was sent this article by our public relations folks with a note that said “Are you doing this?”

The “this” is using actors as Standardized Patients (SP) for medical students. As it turns out, we have been doing this for over 3 years. I can’t take credit for the idea, as I saw a presentation by an actor doing this for Duke at a national conference and became fixated on doing it in Mobile. We went through several different iterations before hitting on the process we currently use.

Why actors? Because they are quick on their feet and can play a role. The students often ask questions that have answers that are “unscripted.” Actors (especially good ones) are used to other actors dropping lines and they have to pick up and keep the momentum going. This is useful when student doctors ask unanticipated questions.

Currently we have several actors who portray patients with chronic illness and several others who present as acute complaints. The actors with chronic illness are used at the beginning of the rotation and are revisited by the students at the end of the rotation. The students are observed as much for their ability to interact as for their diagnostic acumen.

Why do we need these programs? In response to this question posed in the comments by a 4th year medical student who felt the SP program was a distraction from important studying, Melissa Bishop responds:

Henry, I am an SP at Cornell and other schools throughout NYC. While I admit, the 4th year students are usually better at these encounters than the 1st year students, you’d be quite surprised how ill prepared a lot of the 4th year students are. I can’t tell you how many encounters I’ve had with 4th year students whose rapport was so bad, I actually worried that they would eventually be licensed doctors. If you approach the encounters as a waste of time, that’s exactly what they’ll be for you. If you approach it as another form of studying, maybe it would help.