How to Meet Future Doctors

Dear Reader,

Okay, the title is a bit of a tease, but if you’re crafty, this post may still give you ideas.

What is a standardized patient? Standardized patients are individuals who are trained to act out a medical patient with a specific medical history. Universities often employ standardized patients to evaluate medical students in a variety of skills including communication and diagnosis formulation.

So, to answer the question implied in the blog title — you can become a standardized patient! For me, I pretty much this fell into this side hustle. As an actor (another recent side hustle/ hobby of mine — more here), I often apply to jobs through online portals. These platforms also often advertise acting-adjacent jobs like brand ambassador (which I have also done, lol), restaurant host, and trade show model. I found the standardized patient job (I’m just going to refer to them as SPs moving forward) in just the same way (through Facebook actually) and I must say, this gig turned out to be quite the pleasant surprise!

The acting element of being an SP is strong. There is a lot of preparation that goes into this “role.” For example, I receive a few pages regarding my condition (for the sake of an example, let’s say it’s “abdominal pains”). The information will contain my recent medical history, including the onset of the symptoms, but also my longer history including the patient’s relationship with drugs, alcohol, tobacco, romantic/ sexual relations, family, etc.. Some information is strict, like the above history of the symptoms, but other information can be more open ended (like what is this particular patient’s job, place of birth, age, religion, etc.). Similarly, some “lines” should be delivered exactly, while other pieces of information can be brought up in one’s own words. For example, in my experience, standardized patients should always have the same response to the medical student’s question that goes something like “what brings you in today?” In my script, the line (and I’m changing all the details of the case for confidentiality reasons) was “I’ve been having pains in my stomach.” This line is the “opening statement.” In my experience there are only two to four exact lines such as this one per case.

On this note, the beauty of the SP is that they are fundamentally interchangeable. We are trained to respond to yes-or-no questions one way and to open-ended questions another way. We are told not to give out too much information but also to prompt certain information if we feel that the student is missing an important avenue of inquiry.

On my first day of the job, I showed up to the medical school campus (my first time in such a facility even, I think). I went to a classroom where I met the small handful of other SPs who also studied the abdominal pain case. We had a coordinator who briefed us once more on the case and answered any last-minute questions, such as questions regarding the timeline of symptom onset for example. In a funny way, it felt like we were spies (we were being reminded of our “identities” — fake names included!). We were also instructed on how to give brief feedback to the medical student at the conclusion of our interview. After this short orientation, we were sent off to the examination rooms.

Two-way mirrors

The examination rooms lined a small dark corridor. From this vantage, one can see into each room with the aid of two-way mirrors. Desks and headphones were stationed outside each mirror for the medical school professor to listen in on the simulated patient examination session. The inside of the examination rooms look identical and have the appearance of a regular doctor’s office with the exception of the camera, microphone, and two-way mirror, that is.

I was instructed to enter the room first and then after a loud-speaker announcement signaling the beginning of the exercise, entered the medical student. From there, the interview started with the medical student inquiring into my fake concerns and fake medical background. The first interview felt a bit strange because I did not know what to expect (I could also tell that this particular student was super nervous). However, by my fifth interview, my patient’s history felt natural to recite. In fact, I was saying the same information so much, sometimes I had to pause for a second to remember whether I had already offered a particular piece of information to the current student (or had it been only to the last student).

I must say, even though I am an introvert and would normally balk at the idea of spending the morning “interviewing” — I very much enjoyed the work! The part of me that enjoys acting very much took pleasure in the open script and the ability to improv when students would ask questions that deviated from my informational packet (like, for example, when one student asked me what I studied in college and I just blurted out “English” and to my great surprise, he said “me too!” and we shared a fake moment of intimacy).

What a wondrous and curious world I have entered.

So, dear Reader, now you know — being a standardized patient is a bona fide job. SP work can be fun, for sure, if you are into acting, improv, or just have a keen interest in meeting future doctors (you do you!).



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