Faking it to Make it Real

Researchers from the GHSU/UGA Medical Partnership and UGA’s Theatre Department have joined forces in an innovative effort to make medical students ready for real-life patient encounters.

A Method to Act on Collaborative Research                                                                                                                                 by Chelsea Toledo

With universities pushing investigators to leap fences and pursue interdisciplinary research, novel thinking about bioinformatics or biofuel cultivation are to be expected. In these areas, interdisciplinary conversations are underway or at least imaginable.

What the University of Georgia might not have imagined was cross-pollination between the Georgia Health Sciences University/University of Georgia Medical Partnership and UGA’s theatre department. Yet researchers from these disparate fields are working together, training simulated patients to help Athens’ medical students learn to interact effectively—and empathetically—with sick or injured people.

“Nobody wants to be the first patient… we need [medical students] to have experience with patients before they have experience with patients,” said David Saltz, head of the Department of Theatre & Film Studies.

To address this challenge, Saltz created a theatre class on simulated doctor-patient interactions, taught in the spring by graduate assistant Libby Ricardo. Ricardo uses the Stanislovsky method, which teaches actors to develop backstory and realism, to prepare her students for encounters with future doctors. With Saltz’s guidance, she trains undergraduate theatre students and volunteers from the community to act as fake patients.

Although about 80% of medical schools use simulated patients, it is extremely rare for universities to enlist theatre professionals in their training. Even rarer are research projects investigating whether such an approach works.

“The collaboration with the theater department provides special training, we think, for our simulated patients,” said Stephen Goggans, clinical component director for the GHSU/UGA Medical Partnership.

“So what we’re trying to do is compare their performances, based on the training they got, with other groups of simulated patients who were trained in different ways,” added Goggans, who co-leads the research effort with Saltz.

The research project, funded by a $10,000 grant from GHSU, compares the performances of three groups of simulated patients: UGA theatre students, trained community volunteers in Athens, and untrained volunteers recruited in Augusta. A team of physicians and acting teachers will assess the believability of the videotaped encounters between medical students and simulated patients.

“Our theory is that we should see a straight line, that the best performances should come from the trained actors, the simulated patient volunteers that we’ve trained just a little should be somewhere in the middle, and the Augusta volunteers should be at the lowest end,” said Saltz.

Although evaluations will not begin until the end of the semester, there are hints that patients trained to act sick are already having a positive impact on medical students on the Athens campus.

Last May, Athens’ medical students trekked to Augusta to take a national, standardized test for all medical students finishing year one. Their scores were higher than those of their Augusta counterparts, said Ashley Morrow, Essentials of Clinical Medicine coordinator.

The Saltz-Goggans collaboration sprang from a UGA initiative aimed at fostering interdisciplinary research at UGA.

“Most knowledge in the world really doesn’t fit neatly into just one discipline, and a lot of the most exciting discoveries that people are making are being made when you share different knowledge sets,” said Saltz, “So bringing that together is going to be phenomenally useful.”

Laura Smith

Laura Smith

Laura Smith graduated in 2010 from UGA with degrees in journalism and sociology. In addition to earning her master's in health and medical journalism, Laura is also pursuing a certificate in global health from the College of Public Health. She has a soft spot for infectious disease, which led her to East Africa in July 2011 to report on schistosomiasis control efforts. She hopes to use her degree to write truthful, effective health messages to the public on vaccination, infectious disease and the dynamics of our health system.

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