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Role Playing With a Purpose Benefits Mercer Med Students
March 13, 2007

Richard L. Cameron
(478) 301-5500

(This article was published Wednesday, March 14, in The Macon Telegraph)

By Jennifer Burk

Ned Myers plays his part well. Perhaps too well.

To help train medical students, the retired FBI agent sometimes simulates a problem with his carotid artery, which supplies blood to the brain, and occasionally students think it's the real thing.

"I've had students ... (who) have alerted the professor," said Myers, who can imitate a sound that indicates a problem with the artery. "They are convinced I have a real problem."

Myers, 79, is just one participant in the standardized patient program at Mercer University's School of Medicine. Standardized patients are actors and laymen who simulate real patients and help train medical students how to be physicians.

Recently, a group of 12 standardized patients gathered for training on neurological exams. Not only did the training show standardized patients how to respond to an exam, but it also helped them coach the students.

"Get (the students) to demonstrate to you what they want you to do," Dr. Blanca Lopez, director of the community office practice program at Mercer, told the group. "And if they can't, you show them."

Mercer has a pool of about 80 people, ages 6 to 80, who undergo training to act out whatever symptom or illness a medical student is supposed to identify, said Lopez, who is also an assistant professor in the department of internal medicine.

Standardized patients are paid for their training, studying and time spent with medical students.

Training and studying could take anywhere from 15 to 20 hours, Lopez said. Other medical schools pay standardized patients about $15 an hour, but Mercer officials said they couldn't release how much their standardized patients receive.

The group that was training last week will stay with medical students through their first and second years in medical school. They come in as new patients and continue to see the same medical student as new symptoms arise.

Other groups of standardized patients learn specific cases, such as bleeding or shock, to simulate.

Standardized patients don't use their real identities. Instead, they adopt personas and memorize scripts to make the experience as authentic as possible, said Ann O'Neal, director of Mercer's standardized patient program.

The program teaches students not only how to identify illnesses but also how to interact with patients. Standardized patients fill out checklists and provide feedback on what the students did well and what they need to work on.

Sometimes, students can get emotionally involved with their patients.

Sometimes, a student who has to deliver the news to a cancer patient that his disease is no longer in remission and he has no other treatment options starts crying, Lopez said.

Alan Thiese, who is retired from the Navy and Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., recalled one interaction with a medical student: "When they said they were going to have to remove part of my whatever, I had one student who was real reserved, and I said, 'Hey, doctor, are they gonna have to cut me open?' And she freaked out right there on the spot."

Thiese, 67, has been a standardized patient for eight years, and he has simulated skin cancer and bleeding ulcers.

"I was looking for fun things to do because I was retired," he said about joining the program.

Most standardized patients come on referrals from other people who have participated, but anyone interested may contact O'Neal at Mercer.

Thiese said he has learned information about detecting illnesses that he hadn't known before, adding that it's rewarding to help students in their education.

Cile Messer, a retired nurse, has worked as a standardized patient for about five years.

"I've had gall bladder disease. I've been menopausal," said Messer, 64.

She also has been part of a breast and gynecological exam group.

"You can tell when a student's feeling your ovary," she said.

But even though most women avoid pelvic exams, Messer said teaching a student to perform one isn't awkward.

"You're so into the teaching. ... It's exciting to us to be part of it," she said. "Here they can say, 'Oh, cool,' where in a clinic it would probably be frowned upon."

Still, it's not all fun and games.

"If we need to tell the students tough things, we'll tell them that," Messer said.


To contact Jennifer Burk, call 744-4345 or e-mail