When you visit a healthcare practitioner, you put your well-being, and sometimes even your life, in their hands, and you rely on them to be both skilled and compassionate. The education process that brings healthcare professionals to this level of ability relies on effective opportunities for students to practice their skills along the way.

A particularly valuable means of engaging students in these interactions is through the use of standardized patients (SPs).  Standardized patients are members of the community who are educated to portray real patients within a staged health setting.  In Elon University’s School of Health Sciences, SPs work with students in both physical therapy (PT) and physician assistant (PA) studies to bring their education to life.

Standardized patients have long been used in medical education for testing purposes. Training multiple SPs on the same case ensures that all students are assessed uniformly.  The learning opportunities provided by SPs extend far beyond mere assessment, however.

One unique advantage of SPs is their ability to provide personal feedback. Even the most advanced mannequins cannot tell the student whether it hurt when the student was probing the patient’s ear, for example, or whether the quality of a student’s touch was disturbing or reassuring.

Establishing patient rapport and responding empathically during patient-practitioner interactions has been shown to result in improved clinical outcomes for patients. With SPs, students can practice these skills—listening attentively, conveying compassion, inspiring trust, and interacting respectfully—and receive candid, constructive feedback right away.

Working with SPs also allows students to practice real-time decision making. In the PT program, for example, students are asked to examine a “patient” in the coronary care unit—one of the examination rooms in the School of Health Sciences set up with a hospital bed, specialized equipment, and a vital signs monitor.  Activity is monitored in an observation room across the hall. The instructor controls the vital signs displayed on the monitor and has an audio feed to the SP’s earphone. As a pair of students examines the patient, the instructor varies the patient’s physical and physiological responses depending on the choices the students make. The interaction is recorded and available for review by the instructor and the students, allowing further reflection on the critical thinking process.

Mistakes are an inherent part of engaged learning, and SPs provide students with a safe environment within which to make, and learn from, them. This ability is particularly helpful when students are working with very vulnerable patients such as the patient in intensive care or the patient with dementia.

In the education of professionals whose ultimate goal is interacting effectively with patients on  daily basis, the ability to simulate those interactions is essential to the education process. The SP is just one tool in the continuum of simulated patient care experiences utilized in the School of Health Sciences.  Students develop their skills through activities ranging from paper cases and laboratory activities with their peers to working with human donors in anatomy, high-tech mannequins, and patients with actual physical impairments. Standardized patients serve a unique role within the larger spectrum of learning opportunities.

Benefits of SPs are not limited to healthcare education, however. Standardized patients can be effectively utilized anywhere practice with a trained respondent would be helpful. For additional information about simulated patient experiences, including the use of mannequins, visit the websites of the International Organization for Professionals in the Field of Simulated and Standardized Patient Methodology and the Society for Simulation in Healthcare.

Charity Johansson, PT, PhD, GCS, is a Professor of Physical Therapy Education at Elon University.

How to Cite this Post

Johansson, Charity. 2013, August 7. Using Standardized Patients in Healthcare Education. [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/using-standardized-patients-in-healthcare-education/.