For most people, acting sick gets them a day off from work. For Jillian Priebe and nearly 100 others in the area, coughing and complaining of back pain is what they do for a living.
Priebe is a standardized patient at Georgia Health Sciences University’s Medical College of Georgia, a program instituted in 1992 to help medical students better interact and relate with patients while still in a learning environment. Standardized patients learn symptoms for various ailments and act them out for medical students, and then rate them on how they conduct the medical exam and show empathy.
“If you can practice in a low-stakes situation before a high-stakes situation, you’ll handle the high-stakes situation more comfortably,” said Dr. Ruth-Marie Fincher, vice dean of academic affairs for GHSU.
Fincher first heard of standardized patients at an Association of American Medical Colleges conference in 1991 and saw it as a way to teach students how to best interact with patients before it really mattered. Students have to acquire habits such as knocking on the exam room door before entering, washing their hands, introducing themselves to the patient and projecting a calm and confident demeanor, and Dr. Fincher said those things are difficult to teach in the classroom.
“It became clear to me that the concept of using patients to teach was greatly important,” she said.
The standardized patient center looks like any other doctor’s office, with a hallway full of exam rooms and a waiting room outside. Unlike a normal doctor’s office, there are two rooms with walls covered in surveillance screens showing each exam room. Teaching physicians, or preceptors, observe their students on the screens and listen through headsets.
Dr. Shilpa Brown is an assistant professor of medicine and a general internist at GHSU, and she was observing first-year medical students Reena Patel and Danielle Bayer interact with standardized patients as a routine part of her instruction. Brown graduated before standardized patients were used, and she knows how much they would have helped her feel more comfortable interacting with patients.
“That empathy, you can’t teach,” she said. “They have to like you as a person to come back.”
Patel said the first time she worked with a standardized patient, she was extremely nervous. It’s comforting for her to know that these aren’t real patients with real ailments, she said.
“As I go to these sessions, I’m getting more and more comfortable,” she said. “One day when I see a real patient, I’ll know what to do.”
Standardized patients are taught to portray symptoms and feelings, such as annoyance or frustration.
Bayer said practicing with the standardized patients has taught her the importance of remaining cool under pressure, a skill she knows will come up in private practice.
“Just having to know what you need to do and having to think while you know the patient is upset, it’s difficult,” she said. “I can’t imagine having to just jump right in there as a physician.”
Priebe said it’s a fun job, and she knows she is helping future physicians improve their bedside manner.
She gets paid $16 per hour and has to undergo training for each script she acts out. Students might ask her a lot of questions, and she has to understand what the patient would be feeling in the situation.
“I really enjoy it,” she said.