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Medical Exam Provides Stage for Actors

Performers playact their symptoms for future health-care professionals

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June Soh

Most actors perform in movies, TV or theatres, but for others, the stage is an exam room at a medical school.  

At the University of Maryland School of Nursing, that involves an interactive performance with a medical student.

Ted Bell portrays a 55-year-old patient who'd had stomach pain for three months.

“I am a teacher," he tells nursing student Emily Tyrrell. "Several times it has happened at school."

Bell is actually a retired civil engineer. Acting as a patient for students training to be health-care professionals is his new career. The job’s formal title is “standardized patient”.  

“It has developed into a great part time, or retirement job actually, for me," he says, "and I go to all six [medical] schools in this region, Baltimore-Washington area.”

There are about 700 standardized patients in this region. The pay starts at $17 per hour and can go up to $35 depending on the project. And the demand for their services is high.

“It is quite common at schools of medicine," says Kathy Schaivone, clinical director at the University of Maryland. "So every medical school in the United States and many medical schools around the world use standardized patients.”

Acting experience, while helpful, is not required. Nor is medical knowledge. The schools provide training and payment for the performances.

“Many of them are professionals but I have never been paid for acting other than the [this] role-playing," Bell says, "but it requires some acting ability so I guess I would consider myself an actor.”

Professional actor Tom Wyatt acts the role of patient with Kurt Haspert, a nurse practitioner student.
Professional actor Tom Wyatt acts the role of patient with Kurt Haspert, a nurse practitioner student.

Professional actor Tom Wyatt doesn’t think of his side job as acting.

“I use some of the acting skills, but honestly when it is going well, I am not really acting, I am reacting," he says. "I am listening to them and reacting naturally and honestly to what they are saying to me and what they are giving me.”

Wyatt and fellow standardized patients spend many hours training for each of the cases in order to know how to respond to questions appropriately. But memorizing their characters’ symptoms and medical history is not always easy.

“Especially when I do sometimes nine or 10 cases in a week at three different hospitals so they are all completely different,” Wyatt says.  

The actors' role is not limited to portraying a sick patient. After each session, they give feedback to the student.  

“The things that really stood out for me; your manner is extremely professional," Wyatt tells Kurt Haspert, the nurse practitioner student who treated him. "You command at all times, you kind of take charge of the room.”  

Haspert finds the session to be very useful.

“It is always good to do the standardized patients because it kind of keeps you thinking about how your thought process has to go," he says, "and how you can narrow down your differential diagnosis while you are asking questions.”

While the primary focus is on providing the best educational experience possible for the students, the actors enjoy performing.

“Very rewarding," says Bell, the retired engineer. "They say it is very helpful. That makes me feel good that we are turning out some good medical people.”

After three sessions here, Bell heads out to his next gig at another medical school, to continue his role in helping train tomorrow's health professionals.

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