For some, becoming a standardized patient for the WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine began as a way to make some extra cash, for others it was a mission borne of their own experiences in the medical field. No matter the reason, the college’s standardized patients are passionate about one thing: educating the next generation of doctors for Washington.

Launched in 2018 as part of the Virtual Clinical Center, the WSU College of Medicine’s standardized patient program trains individuals from across Washington – primarily in clinical campus locations in Everett, Spokane, Tri-Cities and Vancouver – to portray a patient, simulate a real patient scenario, and then provide valuable feedback to the student about the experience. The program began with 10 standardized patients and has since grown to 50, providing more than 1,500 individual student encounters this academic year alone.

“A standardized patient really begins with the desire to teach medical students,” said Chris Martin, director of simulation-based training for the College of Medicine. “No special training or experience is needed, but our standardized patients work very hard to provide our students with the experiences that will help them be the kind of doctors we all want treating us.” He added, “These individuals are not just simulation center employees, they are part of a larger team doing everything they can to ensure the success of our students.”

Standardized patients, or “SPs” as they call themselves, simulate all aspects of a real patient to give medical students a test run of the experiences they will encounter in the clinical setting. The simulated environment ensures that students gain skills and confidence, make mistakes, and receive valuable feedback for improvement before serving and treating real patients.

“In addition to portraying an illness, standardized patients are trained in providing constructive feedback to students so that they can candidly develop their professional persona with the help of a patient’s viewpoint,” said Martin.

For each encounter, standardized patients learn 10 or more pages of a script to memorize the patient’s background, symptoms, how the patient should convey their symptoms, and more to fully understand the character of the patient they are portraying. Regular training sessions with Virtual Clinical Center staff ensure every standardized patient’s portrayal is consistent so students receive the same experience regardless of the standardized patient they are matched with.

“We all need to react the same way,” said Pamela Kellogg, standardized patient with the College of Medicine. “We work with the WSU staff and they give us feedback to make sure we’re consistent. The goal of the standardized patient is to make sure each student is having the same experience.”

For Stacy Munoz, the decision to become a standardized patient was personal. At 12 years old, her son was diagnosed with cancer and she and her family spent four months in and out of a children’s hospital getting a crash course in working with medical professionals. The experience, which was largely positive, served as her inspiration for pursuing the opportunity.

“I was really excited to participate because I had heard other people say they’d had awful experiences with medical professionals,” said Munoz. “Ours was so positive that I wanted to be a part of something that would replicate that for people.”

For many standardized patients at WSU, ensuring the next generation of doctors is grounded in humanity for their patients is a shared reason for their involvement. Though doctors are often portrayed as being innately compassionate, good listeners and providing a personal touch, many patients have had a negative experience with a physician that stems from a deficiency in one or more of these traits. Often, these skills must be taught and refined – something standardized patients are highly attuned to help with.

“Before standardized patient programs, medical students practiced on each other, but as standardized patients we are completely independent and can tell it like it is,” said Warren Rust, standardized patient for the College of Medicine. “Our focus is on helping the students to improve and not just point out what they did wrong. And we focus on a lot of real-world scenarios like admitting a mistake, giving a death notice to a family, and dealing with folks on the fringes of society.” He added, “It’s not just treating John Doe for a sore throat.”

Though COVID-19 put a temporary pause on the in-person components of the standardized patient program in spring 2020, the college quickly pivoted to virtual standardized patient encounters. While some components of in-person experiences didn’t translate in the virtual environment, the increased exposure to treating patients via telemedicine could prove to be a boon to future doctors.

“Students are getting training, experience and feedback on the nuances of being online versus being in person,” said Rust. “There’s still a lot we can do medically through telecommunications around medical history and treatment that doesn’t require being face-to-face, so it’s interesting for students to learn the techniques that are best as it becomes more mainstream.”

As the inaugural class of the College of Medicine wraps up their final months of medical school, the standardized patient team is anxious to see the students they have watched grow and develop serving the community and becoming the doctors every patient wants to have.

“In the end, this is for the benefit of patients,” said Tim Jaeger, standardized patient for the College of Medicine. “There’s so much physician burnout these days, but there can be much less when a physician does a good job of connecting with their patients.” He added, “It’s really great to be a part of this process, to help create the success of the physician-patient relationship.”

To learn more about the WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine standardized patient program, visit the website at medicine.wsu.edu.