Humans and Pets Needed to Train Medical Students, Both Online and In-Person

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Steve Stauff and his dog Biscuit have both been standardized patients, helping to train future medical professionals at MSU.

Michigan State University is home to four medical colleges – Human Medicine, Osteopathic Medicine, Nursing, and Veterinary Medicine – and relies on the local community for training future medical professionals through its Standardized Patient (SP) programs.

Together, the Learning and Assessment Center (LAC) as well as the Clinical Skills Teaching Area (CSTA) at MSU bring in more than 200 humans and some animals to simulate interactions with patients for students.

“[The role] of the SP program is for these colleges [to be able to] provide a learning opportunity for the students to build their clinical and communications skills, by simulating realistic encounters with our standardized patients,” Sarah Garnatt, the SP program coordinator, said.

As the coordinator, Garnatt manages the LAC’s pool of patients. According to her, patients are trained to act out characters for cases and scenarios given to medical students. SPs allow medical students to gain experience before interacting with actual patients.

SPs come from the greater East Lansing area, and the position offers an opportunity to earn extra money. According to Garnatt, SPs are paid, on average, between $15-18 an hour, but the pay will vary depending on the type of work.

When looking for SPs, the LAC looks to make their pool of patients diverse, so students will be exposed to people from “all different backgrounds and different walks of life,” according to Garnatt. In terms of personal qualifications, the LAC wants people with “good memory recall skills,” good communication, some acting skill, reliability, and internet access. With the ongoing pandemic, internet access has become important to running the program.

Photo from Michigan State University’s Learning and Assessment Center (taken pre-pandemic).

While the LAC has continued to run in-person simulations – with no covid transmissions connected to the simulation, according to Garnatt – they  have stepped up the amount of telehealth simulations.

One SP who has participated in the program during the pandemic is Steve Stauff, who has been a SP since October 2015. He participates along with his dog, Biscuit.

Biscuit serves as a standardized patient to help vet med students at MSU learn to work with animals and their owners.

Stauff participates in about two to three SP events per week and has continued participation during the pandemic. Stauff thinks having telehealth simulations is valuable, especially during the Covid-19  pandemic.

“I know a few years ago, people were trying to use telehealth as a ways to get to rural [people],” Stauff said. “Well, this is Covid, you don’t have to be rural. People need help right down the street. So, if they can’t get in [person], telehealth is a nice option.”

Stauff has been happy with the safety precautions taken for in-person simulations as well. Double masks and face shields are used, and simulation rooms are constantly sanitized.

“Both places, the LAC and the CSTA, have really looked out for both the standardized patients and the students in keeping things safe and healthy,” Stauff said.

Overall, Stauff enjoys helping out students, and says this is his way of “giving back to the community.” He also enjoys watching as the students make progress.

“It’s fun because you’ll see them as first-year students, then you’ll see them as a second, and third, and fourth,” Stauff said. “[Even though] you don’t see all the students all the time, because [the LAC and CSTA] mix them up, there’s enough interaction where you see them progress.”

The application to become a SP can be found here.

Disclosure: ELi’s Publisher Alice Dreger is married to Aron Sosua, who is the Interim Dean of MSU’s College of Human Medicine. They are donors to ELi.

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