Faking sick: Standardized patients give UT medical students leg up in training

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Jun. 24—With 14 years of experience under her belt, Gina Gangway has developed a set of skills every grade-school kid dreams of having.

She gets paid to fake being sick.

Ms. Gangway, who is one of 30 standardized patients — or independent contractors who portray the role of a patient with specific medical conditions — helps medical students at the University of Toledo hone their crafts as doctors through simulated patient visits. She's become so comfortable pretending to experience specific symptoms or presenting certain ailments, she's often told by medical students who perform interviews and examinations that the session feels authentic.

"[They've said] they forget sometimes that it's a simulated experience, that it seems very real to them in the moment," the 57-year-old Sylvania native said.

UT's Standardized Patient Program was one of the first to launch in the country when it began in 1991 at what was then the Medical College of Ohio. Erik Meiner, interim director of UT's Ruth M. Hillebrand Clinical Skills Center and the program's coordinator, said the different cases medical students examine for the program builds their confidence in developing a rapport with patients.

"If you think about it for a first-year medical student, it could be very nerve-racking doing that very first interview and physical exam with a patient," he said. "They're here a bunch of times throughout their time as a student, so as they complete sessions in our center, they gain that confidence, they get feedback, and they develop those skills to hopefully become a better doctor in the future."

During sessions, standardized patients such as Ms. Gangway portray cases of back pain, shortness of breath, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or psychological conditions — among many other health-related issues.

Other sessions involve scenarios like patients who have confused their medication, or a cancer patient who has specific religious beliefs that may complicate treatment discussions. The standardized patients are trained to respond to how each individual under each circumstance might respond in a real setting, and then the medical students perform interviews and examinations, learning through the process how to handle specific situations.

"The confidence that it builds in a clinical setting is one of the bigger things for me," said Ganiru Anunike, a second-year medical student from Columbus.

"Clinic is terrifying to begin with," added Katy Stibley, also a second-year medical student, from Muncie, Ind. "When we go in, we're able to tell the patient, 'You're not the first human I've examined.' So not only does it give us confidence, but it does for the patients too."

UT's class of standardized patients consists of former health-care workers, teachers, and a number of other community members who perform the task on the side with minimal time commitment required.

"A common misconception in our field is that you have to have an acting or theater background to be a good standardized patient, because there's some acting and simulation going on," Mr. Meiner said. "But we have people from a variety of backgrounds."

Though the role doesn't require a lot of hours per week, and is only utilized on an as-needed basis, Ms. Gangway sees the importance she plays in preparing future doctors to become comfortable interacting with a variety of patients.

"I like learning new things, so that is part of it for me," she said. "But I also like knowing that I have a hand in helping the medical students develop their communication skills, and their clinical skills."

Those doctor/patient conversations are pivotal, says Malik Mays, a third-year medical student from Cleveland who has found simulations with patients to have helped him tremendously already.

"I remember my first year, just writing a patient note was a lot to do, I had no idea how to do it," he said. "And now I'm seeing six patients in a row, doing physical exams, asking them questions, writing up a note. The [simulation center] has helped a lot in just making me feel comfortable."

Individuals interested in applying to become a standardized patient can fill out an application online or call (419) 383-4433.

First Published June 24, 2021, 7:00am

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