How Standardized Patients Work

A Good Fake Patient Is Hard to Find

Looks like he made the cut. That could be good experience for a few different careers.
Looks like he made the cut. That could be good experience for a few different careers.
Image courtesy University of Pittsburgh

SP recruiters are an intuitive, picky bunch, and with good reason. Standardized patients are helping to train the next generation of doctors; their feedback directly impacts medical students' careers; and the work is hard. Imagine having to keep track of assessment criteria while listening closely to a student's questions, recalling one's symptoms, hunching over in pain and trying to keep the back of a hospital gown closed.

When it comes to SP selection for a specific case, there are objective criteria [source: Johns Hopkins]. Ideally, if the patient is Asian, female and middle-aged, so is the SP portraying her, so recruiters aim for diversity in their pool of potential SPs [source: Fulmer]. Populating that pool with great standardized patients, on the other hand, is a far more subjective undertaking.

There is no ideal background for the work, though experience and/or interest in teaching, medicine, acting or communications comes in handy [source: Lewis]. Often, it's more about personal skills and personality traits. Good SPs are often curious and detail-oriented and love to learn [source: Fulmer, Lewis]. They are energetic and positive (lest they start sagging and snapping by the 10th performance), are good communicators and listeners and have excellent memories [source: University of Pittsburgh]. They take direction well and have the flexibility to implement it: If a simulation isn't achieving the desired goal, an SP may need to make changes to his or her act [sources: Lewis, CU Denver, University of Pittsburgh]. And people who are uncomfortable around doctors or dealing with health matters probably shouldn't apply [source: University of Pittsburgh].

For those who qualify, it can be a pretty great gig. It's typically part-time work at best, and not particularly steady (curriculum needs dictate case load), but the hourly rate is substantial – usually between $17 and $35 an hour [sources: Lewis, Fulmer, Sun]. And the field has a certain draw. Student interactions can be fascinating, especially for those interested in medicine, psychology or education. It can be highly satisfying work for someone who enjoys helping people learn. It also can be prime resume material for people pursuing careers in theater, medicine or teaching [source: Lewis].

And then, there's the "You do what?" factor -- or, as Karen Lewis puts it, "It makes great dinner conversation."

Perhaps less so in the case of gonorrhea. But still.

Author's Note: How Standardized Patients Work

An acquaintance of mine is a dermatologist, and when I told her I was writing about standardized patients, she laughed. (Oddly enough, she took her standardized patient exam for licensure at the same hospital where Kramer was fictionally undergoing his exam, the Morchand Center for Clinical Competence in New York.) At that laugh, I got excited, ready to get some juicy stories for my article. My research didn't turn up much on the doctor's perspective. Sadly, she claims she doesn't remember much. It was in 2001, she says, too long ago. All she told me was, "It was bizarre." She declined to elaborate. It's killing me.

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  • Association of Standardized Patient Educators (ASPE). "About ASPE." (Dec. 4, 2014)
  • Brown, Eryn. "Actors draw med school students into caregiver role." The Los Angeles Times. Feb. 14, 2014. (Dec. 4, 2014)
  • Fulmer, Val. Director, Standardized Patient Program, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Email interview. Dec. 11, 2014.
  • Grand Valley State University (GVSU). "Simulation Center – Standard Patient Program." Office of the Vice Provost for Health. (Dec. 4, 2014)
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