Standardized patients - people who portray patients - play a vital role at the Clinical Teaching and Assessment Center (CTAC). Learn more about becoming a standardized patient from these frequently asked questions.

What is a standardized patient?

A standardized patient is a person who portrays a patient. Standardized patients role-play or use their own medical history for teaching and testing of clinical skills for health sciences learners. During interactions with a learner, the standardized patient responds to questions by the student and, in some cases, undergoes specific physical examinations.

Each standardized patient encounter is designed to teach or assess skills appropriate to the student’s level of training. The word "standardized" means that the standardized patient repeats his or her story in a consistent manner to numerous students.

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What characteristics are you looking for in standardized patients?

People who are interested in students and in learning, who are excellent listeners and who can focus on the educational goals of the session make good standardized patients. It isn’t necessary to have a medical background or vocabulary. In fact, the Standardized Patient Program strives to involve as many diverse people as possible.

While it’s helpful if you have had some contact with doctors, pharmacists, physical therapists and other health care providers, it is not essential. It’s also important for a standardized patient to stay focused on the role play or material that has been provided. Finally, a flexible schedule is necessary in order to work as a standardized patient.

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Are the hours regular?

This is an intermittent, very part-time job. One month you might work 16 hours, the next month no hours. The schedule depends on many variables, one of which is matching you to the cases requested by the faculty.

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How much does it pay?

We pay $15 per hour for work and training time. It may take up to one month to be paid for your work due to the University of Wisconsin-Madison payroll process.

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Are standardized patients "guinea pigs?"

No one will be trying out any treatments or medical procedures on you. You’ll be helping faculty with teaching and testing. If the session involves a physical exam, you’ll know about all the aspects in advance.

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Why would a person want to be a standardized patient?

It’s a chance to make a difference in educating future health care professionals. Standardized patients also typically like to learn about health. Often standardized patients are very people-oriented and outgoing and enjoy getting to meet learners and faculty members. The sessions are always different because the learners are always different and are growing and evolving.

There may be other benefits to being a standardized patient. Recent literature suggests that people who work as standardized patients are more capable of benefiting from the health care system and are more satisfied with their own physicians.

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Do the students do those "personal" physical exams on standardized patients?

There are no breast, pelvic, rectal, or testicular exams done.

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How do I know what to say when medical students interview me?

You will be carefully trained. You will learn the complete medical history you are to portray, either yours, if you agree in advance, or a role play. As the standardized patient, you may be able to tell the student details about your life such as your job, your family and hobbies. You will be trained to portray the appropriate emotional state as the patient.

For cases requiring a physician examination, you will be taught how to move as a patient would and to accurately simulate responses while being examined.

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Do medical students know we are not real patients? Will I use my own name?

Yes. We aren’t trying to deceive anyone. Students are told to behave just as they would with real patients while doing histories and physical examinations. You can use your own first name if you choose.

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Is being a standardized patient like being a research subject? Is this a research project?

No, this is very different. Medical research subjects are thought of as people who take experimental drugs or are undergoing medically designed behavior changes such as diet or exercise programs and then have their reactions studied.

We use standardized patients to simulate situations for the students such as:

  • Meeting a patient for the first time
  • Doing an interview about stopping smoking
  • Giving bad news
  • Explaining medications
  • Conducting a routine medical history interview
  • Performing physical examinations

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How is this different from acting?

This work has nothing to do with finding dramatic moments or playing to an audience. When working as a standardized patient, it is important that you focus on the learning or assessment goals for the students.

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Is it safe? 

Yes. Standardized patients review the cases before they are assigned and are never asked to participate in situations which may make them uncomfortable. There is no reason for anyone to do anything that might be harmful. The physical examinations are very basic and designed to not cause harm to the standardized patient. Many encounters are videotaped and most interactions are observed by a faculty person as they happen.

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What type of physical examinations will the student perform?

The physical examinations are much like those performed in a doctor’s office. The student may:

  • Listen to your heart and lungs with a stethoscope
  • Press on your abdomen to identify any tenderness or swelling
  • Look into your eyes, ears, nose and throat
  • Take your blood pressure
  • Take your pulse
  • Check your reflexes
  • Assess your muscle strength

The student will not perform exams such as a genital, rectal or breast and will not take blood or other samples.

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Will I need to take my clothes off?

For patient cases that require no physical examinations, standardized patients wear street clothes. If the students are expected to perform a physical examination, you may be required to wear a hospital gown. You will never be asked to participate in a situation that makes you uncomfortable.

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Why do you need standardized patients? I thought medical students learned on real patients.

Students do work with real patients in supervised clinical experiences. However, standardized patients provide a safe and controlled learning and testing environment to prepare students to see real patients. Standardized patients provide students with the same, consistent case each time, and as a result the faculty can be sure that the same skills are practiced by all students. Thus, every student gets the chance to demonstrate their clinical skills in the same situation. It makes it a fair exam or learning experience for everyone.

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Being a standardized patient sounds easy. Anyone could do it.

Below is a list of expectations for our standardized patients. Standardized patients should:

  • Be comfortable with their health and dealing with health professionals
  • Be an excellent listener
  • Be reliable and punctual
  • Be nonjudgmental about students and faculty gender, race, religion, national origin, physical characteristics, etc.
  • Conduct themselves professionally, showing respect for all students, faculty members and staff
  • Consistently portray the role or scenario, as trained by staff
  • Remember what the student who examined you did and then record it, if asked
  • Have strong written and verbal communication skills
  • Keep all information regarding the case, students and other patients confidential
  • Want to contribute to the training process of excellent health care professionals
  • Be willing to be videotaped for educational purposes

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I am interested in becoming a standardized patient. What do I do next?

Call (608) 263-6018 or send an email to maser@wisc.edu at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health Clinical Teaching and Assessment Center to arrange a screening interview. We may not need your help immediately, but if you’re selected to be a standardized patient, we will keep your name and contact information on file.

Requests for standardized patients with specific characteristics (e.g., gender, age) and/or symptoms (e.g., diabetes, irregular heat beat, etc) arise at different times. We will contact you if we will be using a case that you can portray. Do not assume you are working unless you have been contacted and you have been trained for a session. 

If you’re selected to be a standardized patient, you will be hired as a part-time limited-term employee (LTE) and are required to complete state and federal tax and other forms and to show necessary identification.

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