Standardized Patient Program FAQ

What is a “Standardized Patient?”

A Standardized Patient (SP) is a person trained to portray a real life patient in a standardized, scripted clinical scenario. SP’s provide students the opportunity to practice their interviewing, counseling, physical exam, communication and other skills that contribute to their development as professionals in the field of medicine. SP’s are trained to evaluate student performances and provide constructive feedback.

I’ve seen advertisements for research subjects. Is being a standardized patient like that?

No. Most people think of medical research subjects as people who take medications or are on certain diets, and then have their reactions to them studied. This is very different. We are teaching and assessing the students, not the patients. We use standardized patients to simulate situations for the students, such as meeting a new patient for the first time in a clinic, and interviewing them about their problems, examining them and counseling the patient.

What types of physical examination would be involved?

They would be very common examinations of the type that you would have done in a doctor’s office. For example, they may: listen to your heart and lungs with a stethoscope; press on your abdomen looking for tenderness or swellings; look into your eyes, ears and throat; take your blood pressure; assess your muscle strength; check your reflexes; check your pulses etc. Female breast examinations are not permitted, but breasts may be touched as necessary parts of other examinations, as for example listening to the heart. None of the examinations involve taking any blood or other samples. The students would NOT be doing any genital or rectal examinations, or breast examinations on women.

How do I know what to say when a student interviews me?

You would be trained to be able to portray the patient. We create a complete history for you to learn. It includes the patient’s complaint for which she/he comes to see the doctor, her/his past medical history, and details about her/his life such as her/his job, her/his family and activities. We also describe the emotional state that she/he is in when visiting the doctor. By learning that history you can learn to become that person, and speak to the doctor just as they would. We would also show you how to move like that patient and how to react to the physical examination. For example, you may be portraying someone with a bad back. We would show you where it hurts and what the patient could or could not do because of that back problem. If you are supposed to portray someone with a pain in the abdomen you would be shown how to react when it is pressed in certain places.

That sounds like acting. Do I have to be an actor?

No. Some SPs are trained and experienced actors but some are not. You can be a very good SP without ever having been on stage or in a movie. There are some similarities to what actors do, but there are differences too. For most cases, if you are the right sort of person we can train you to do the job regardless of your experience.

I am an actor. This should be easy for me and good experience too.

Perhaps. But you may find it much more difficult than working from a script or within dramatic improvisational outlines, and you may find it frustrating. This work has nothing to do with finding dramatic moments or playing to an audience. It has everything to do with disciplining yourself within the needs of the case and the teaching of the students. It can be very repetitive, as exactly the same patient must be presented for every student. Some actors find this difficult or annoying and we cannot use them, while others are fine SPs and can use their skills to present patients that are difficult for non-actors to simulate. Remember too that this work is confidential. You will not be permitted to use the material in any public or private performance.

Is it safe?

Yes. There is no reason for anyone to do anything that might be harmful. You are not really sick, just simulating someone who is sick, so whether or not the student knows what is wrong and what to do about it doesn’t matter. The examinations are very basic and do not cause any harm to the SP. At most there might be some brief discomfort. If you had cause for concern you would be entitled to stop any examination.

If the student notices something wrong during a “mock” exam – can he or she diagnose me?

No. The simulation will never take the place of being seen by a trained and licensed physician. For example, if the student notices that you have high blood pressure during a “mock examination”, we will advise you to see your family physician. The students cannot diagnose a disorder or illness and they cannot prescribe any medication.

Do the students know we are not real patients?

Yes. We aren’t trying to deceive anyone. Students are told they will be working with SPs, and are told to behave just as they are being trained to do with real patients.

I’ve had a couple of health problems in the past. Can I still be a Standardized Patient?

Probably you can be, if you are suitable in every other way. Everyone has had some sort of medical history. Sometimes it doesn’t matter if the SP has had a problem that the patient they are portraying has not had. Sometimes it does, but that might only mean that the particular SP cannot portray that particular patient, and they could be quite suitable for another case.

Why do you need Standardized Patients? I thought medical students learned with real patients.

Some things are better done with SPs. For example, we can have one SP be seen by a number of students and behave each time as though it were the first time they have come to see a doctor for their problem. Using SPs allows students to practice before they work with real patients, to make mistakes and learn from their mistakes, without doing anything to a real patient – counseling them badly or taking a poor history for example – that might be upsetting or harmful. This is not intended to replace the experience they will need with real patients, but rather to add to their training, so that they can do a better job with the real patients and learn more from them. And when SPs are used in student exams they can be more consistent, and therefore fairer, than real patients.

What types of people do you need?

Just as there are all kinds of real patients we would like to have groups of SPs representing all ages and physical types, both men and women.

Do I need to know a lot about medicine?

No. We will teach you what you do need to know.

Will I need to take my clothes off?

No. In some situations you will be undergoing physical examination, and for that you would be dressed in a hospital gown, open at the back, with underwear on underneath. You would know ahead of time when this would be expected.

How often would I work and when?

It varies. You will be called based on the need for your type and how many cases we are working on. Most classes are during week days, so that is when you will be called to do scenario work. Training sessions for SPs are more flexible. We will try to accommodate your schedule for training whenever possible. Please note that training is mandatory; you cannot work unless you attend training.

How much does the job pay?

Geisinger Commonwealth is currently paying $18.50 per hour for both training and the work itself. As someone who would work only occasionally, no benefits are paid by the medical school.

How do you choose who will become and SP?

We will conduct group and individual interviews to find out if candidates are suitable. We need people who understand well the unusual requirements of this work. You should be comfortable with your own health and in your dealings with health professionals. Good reading and verbal skills are very important, as you will be given a lot of written material, and you will be expected to speak with Geisinger Commonwealth doctors and students regularly and effectively. It will be essential that anyone hired as an SP not have any biases based on gender, race, religion, national origin, physical characteristics, and so forth. Geisinger Commonwealth’s medical students come from a very wide variety of backgrounds, and you must be fair to every student. As with any job, reliability and punctuality are essential. Finally, you must agree to confidentiality. The cases you portray must not be discussed with anyone.

How can I apply?

Please fill out the application and email it and your resume to or mail to:

Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine
Human Resources
525 Pine Street
Scranton, PA 18509

Thank you for your interest in our program.

If you have any additional questions you can contact:
Kathryn Powell, MA
Manager of the Standardized Patient Program
(570) 687-9680