The Importance of Standardized Patients in Medical Education | Visit our blog page for articles on Simulation and Staffing

The Importance of Standardized Patients in Medical Education

A student who wants to become a doctor will find themselves in school for at least 8 years. During their time there, they’ll study things such as anatomy, pathology, and biochemistry. They will spend countless hours with their noses buried inside textbooks to learn terminology and proper procedures or ethical practices. There are not many chances for students to gain real life experience during their medical education programs. It is especially difficult to experience real life interaction with patients. That’s why a standardized patient program exists. Standardized patients are people who are trained to portray, in a consistent, standardized manner, a patient in a medical situation. A resident of UF’s Pediatric Residency Program in Pensacola Florida made the following comments about Standardized Patients:

“In my medical school, we were exposed to standardized patients from the beginning of our education.  Every medical school does this part of the curriculum differently so it is important to note that.  We had a course in the first 3 years of medical school called Doctoring, essentially to help us learn the tools, questions, and exams that were to be used when we encounter patients.  Standardized patients played a key role to help me practice my toolbox skills with real time feedback.  If you would like to get more specific information about standardized patients from a legitimate source, check out FSU’s Standardized Patients FAQ Page.”

Standardized patients have been around since the 1960s as a method to provide an objective clinical measure to evaluate students. According to UKY's article on SP's, It took quite some time for this program to be established as a medical school curriculum throughout the United States. The goal of an SP is not to accurately act out a certain disease or illness, but to convey the problem in a consistent and measurable way. There are many great actors who do well as SPs, but being an excellent SP doesn’t equate to being an amazing actor. Claudia Garcia, former SP and now a Med Sim Op for Engenium Staffing, says, “I don’t necessarily believe you have to be a good actor. If you think about how a real patient would behave or how you would if presented with that situation, you will be able to behave accordingly.” 

Many viral videos of standardized patients include excellent actors who take the scenario to an immersive level. Such as this video of an emergency trachea medical simulator. The key quality a standardized patient needs the ability to give the same performance to the following student, and the next one, and 20 more after that.

 “Practicing one-on-one with SPs in the learning lab lets students soak in feedback that they are given by the SP.  For the student, being able to practice communication skills before they are responsible for real patients with real problems, allows them to focus on listening to the patient.”

Janice M. Kregor, MD – UK College of Medicine
There are many different types of standardized patient programs ranging from simple counseling sessions, to full physical examinations. These programs are effective in establishing strong communication skills with patients, testing examination skills, interpretation skills, and clinical skills.

To ensure that standardized patients do their jobs in assisting in the learning process of medical students, they must follow The Association of Standardized Patient Educators (ASPE) Standards of Best Practice (SOBP). ASPE is the global organization focused on human simulation. The ASPE SOBP provides clear and practical guidelines for educators who work with SPs. Care has been taken to make these guidelines precise and yet flexible enough to address the diversity of varying contexts of SP practice. 

The use of standardized patients allows students to learn essential skills in a measurable way. Immediate feedback on performance from the SP influence positive changes in thinking and actions. Being able to misdiagnose or prescribe the wrong amount to an SP without negative side effects. In a risk-free environment, corrections can be made before making mistakes with real life patients. The flexibility of a Standardized patient is invaluable to the facility using them. They are able to adapt and be flexible for every type of scenario and trainee. The resident from Pensacola also says,

“I think standardized patients were very beneficial in my education.  We were able to practice our questions with them, learn how to perform a broad physical exam then a more focus physical exam, and practice physical exams with them.  Having standardized patients also prepared us for one part of our boards, Step 2 CS (clinical skills).  This exam involved 12 standardized patients in patient rooms and we are graded on how well we interact, ask questions, present ourselves, etc. “ 

Standardized Patients are key pieces to the medical education process. The Benefits are clear. In the standpoint of a standardized patient, Claudia says the program brings “learning to life” and “improves the quality of education”. Claudia continues to say, “The opportunity of learning with a real-life person gives these great health care professionals in training a platform to master their skills and behaviors necessary to practice in today’s healthcare environment.” Being a Standardized Patient can be challenging depending on the persons medical knowledge and ability to improvise. But, as Claudia says, “Knowing that I am part of improving patient care and service is my overall favorite part about being an SP.”

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