Playing Sick

Medical students interact with local actors to hone their communications skills in the Standardized Patient Program.

An actor portraying an illness is commonplace on television and in movies that aim to provide a realistic view of the emotions and physical pain that patients endure. But what many may not realize is how valuable actors can be to aspiring medical professionals in real life.

The Standardized Patient Program, a national program that was introduced to the University of Kentucky’s College of Medicine in the mid 1990s, has become a vital way to train and assess medical students on how they communicate with patients.

“We primarily focus on communication skills – how to talk and get information from a patient, and how to improve their listening skills by not interrupting or being judgmental,” explained Joe Gatton, who has served as coordinator of the standardized patient, or “SP” program, for nearly seven years.

Gatton, who has a background in show business, served as a SP himself for nearly a decade before taking on the role of coordinator. His responsibilities include training the SPs to portray various illnesses in order to evaluate the skills of the students in all of UK’s major health colleges, including pharmacy, nursing, dentistry and the physician’s assistant programs.

The SP program begins during a medical student’s first year at UK, with the scenarios the SPs portray and the skill levels progressing as the student shows advancement.

Medical students are aware the SPs that assess their skills are actors. The goal is to give them a way to practice their craft before venturing out into real-life situations.

“For first- and second-year students, we’re teaching them how to assess a patient’s ailments based on how they verbally describe what’s going on,” Gatton said. “(The student) learns how to ask the right kinds of questions in the right kind of way. Sometimes even silence draws more information out – just being patient enough to listen instead of going to the next question, and learning how to respond.”

Besides UK medical students, the SP program also occasionally works offsite with interns, pharmacists and other medical professionals within competency training workshops.

UK’s SP staff is made up of about 35 to 40 people, ages 20 to 75, that evaluate medical students based on a specific checklist of skills. The position is considered part-time and temporary, although Gatton said he knows people that have worked as SPs for more than 10 years.

When hiring SPs, Gatton said communication skills and a teaching background are a plus, but not required. Over the years, he has employed many retired teachers, actors and other individuals involved in the communications field. 


The article appeared in "The Chevy Chaser" Magazine and can be found at