Short of longtime television show ER, fine arts and hospitals may seem an unlikely couple. But at the University of Kentucky, acting is crucial to educating medical students, as instructors bring in trained actors to help future doctors become accustomed to speaking with patients in their quest to diagnose what ails them.
Called the Standardized Patient Program, it was introduced to UK's College of Medicine in the mid-1990s and is now used by the various health colleges, including nursing, on campus. Impersonating the patients are students, retirees, teachers and professional actors, program coordinator Joe Gatton said.
"These people are trained and tested by faculty and staff to represent any type of scenario or illness that will be encountered by these students when they go out into the field," he said.
Medical students are aware the patients they evaluate through the program are actors. The point is to give them a safe way to practice and measure their skills in a clinical setting, Gatton said.
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"Before this program started, you sat in the classroom and took notes and then they threw you in, sink or swim, with patients," he said. "Now there is an established method of measuring their competency — both communication and technical skills."
Fourth-year medical student David Ritchie said the program's greatest benefit is to hone communication skills.
"It really helps you to develop your interpersonal skills, particularly when it comes to situations that may not be easy for people to address with their patients," he said.
The program begins in a health student's first year of schooling, and the scenarios and skill levels progress as they advance.
"The initial interactions are more focused on basic collection of info and establishing rapport with the patient," Ritchie said. "The program is an effective way of helping first- and second-year medical students transition to the clinical environment."
The program is designed to emulate the national board exams that students must take.
For those interested in posing as students, UK hires the actors on its online application system.
"Communication skills are a plus, and obviously acting is a plus because they're representing different types of emotional scenarios," Gatton said. "We also have a lot of retired teachers and aspiring teachers because there is an educational factor."
The starting hourly wage for actors hired through the program is $14, though it increases to $20 if the assignment requires traveling or a more invasive procedure such as a breast exam.
Fred Zegelien, a professional actor and a regular with the Standardized Patient Program, said it's very beneficial for the medical students and their ability to adopt good communication skills.
"They know we're not real patients, but they come in and try to make it as real as possible for both of us," said Zegelien, who has done everything from a pancake commercial to Shakespeare.
Gatton said he hopes the program teaches students not to rely so much on data as opposed to simply listening to patients. And that goal is something not lost on Ritchie as he prepares to become a doctor.
"One thing I've learned is having constant patient interactions and having an impact on patients' lives certainly reminds you of why you went into the medical profession," Ritchie said. "It makes it much easier to get through the long day."