How to Become a Standardized Patient

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Ever played doctor as a child? Now you can play patient—and make money doing it. Medical schools across the nation pay actors to portray patients to teach medical and nursing students how to conduct routine checkups, respond to patient issues, and diagnose symptoms.

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What is a standardized patient?

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A standardized patient or SP is an independent contractor hired by medical facilities and training programs to portray patients in various medical scenarios. They are used to teach and train aspiring doctors and other people involved in the medical field.

A typical day for a standardized patient can range from playing an abused wife to playing a patient diagnosed with a myriad of diseases. In one case, actor Tischa Culver went to Barcelona for a doctors’ association convention, where she was tested for fibromyalgia. “The doctor would squeeze your elbow and ask you to describe the pain from one to 10,” Culver says. She had been coached on what to say based on her character.

“We find smart, talented actors [to assist] us in training the next generation of physicians,” explains Dr. Sondra Zabar, director of internal medicine and clinical innovation at NYU Langone Health. “We use standardized patients for our learners—whether they’re medical students or residents or faculty—to practice important skills.”

The practice “has become a standard part of all medical school training,” says Zabar. “Even part of the licensure of medical students includes a standardized patient exam.”

Can being a standardized patient make you a better actor?

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Being a standardized patient can certainly make you a better actor. The work entails performing highly realistic portrayals of a character’s medical symptoms, ranging from the tiniest broken toe to a debilitating disease. This type of hyper-realistic acting helps you learn how to (literally) embody a role. Standardized patients must also perform their character’s personal history, emotional state, and any questions and concerns they have for their medical professional. 

“This definitely helps with my improvisation skills and also character development,” says Phyllis Lynn, an actor who has worked as a standardized patient at Brown University’s school of medicine.

“Having the SP program gives me the opportunity to create believable characters that are grounded in reality,” actor Kamil Haque, who worked as a standardized patient in Pomona, adds. “I get the chance to perform and know that while I’m evaluating the student doctors, I too am being evaluated. I get instant feedback on my performance and where I can improve.”

Requirements to be a standardized patient

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If you want to be a standardized patient, you must be reliable and flexible, with strong communication and acting skills.

  • Reliability: Since you’re involved in the training of medical professionals, it’s imperative that you show up to all training and performance sessions.
  • Flexibility: The hours are often sporadic, so flexibility is a must. Further, just like with real-life patients, standardized patients might experience last-minute symptoms or health changes, so be ready to adapt and improvise as needed.
  • Communication skills: You should be able to write and talk to a diversity of professionals in the medical community. You’ll usually be asked to provide feedback to students, so knowing how to provide constructive criticism is also helpful. 
  • Acting ability: Your work will entail simulating patient behavior, so it’s important that you can memorize lines, perform emotions, and act out a variety of physical conditions

Some roles may also have demographic requirements such as age, gender, and ethnicity.

How to apply to standardized patient jobs

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Many performers get involved in specialized patient programs through friends, but ads also appear on job search, medical education, and hospital sites. The ASPE website has a list of medical school programs around the U.S. that hire simulated patients.

With programs always searching for new actors, finding these jobs is not necessarily tough, but it does take dedication and skill to keep booking gigs.

Generally, applications will ask for your:

  • Full name
  • Location
  • Contact information
  • Education/specialized job training
  • Previous acting, standardized patient, and teaching, training, and coaching experience
  • Languages spoken
  • Height and weight
  • Any areas you don’t want examined
  • Consent to share personal medical history
  • Availability
  • References

Once hired, performers must go through a training program. “The training itself was rigorous and intensive, but very informative,” says Haque. Most training is paid, but the real paychecks come once you begin working with student doctors and nurses.

How much do standardized patients get paid?

Standardized patient salaryfizkes/Shutterstock

Standardized patients usually earn $39,132 per year—or $19 per hour—according to ZipRecruiter. Due to the sporadic availability of work, most people take it on as a side job that can also be used to hone acting skills.

“We found out that standardized patients, or people who do this kind of work, really enjoy it because they’re contributing to the next generation of physicians,” says Zabar. “They find they learn a lot themselves. Many of them say that now they have different expectations with how they approach their own physicians, and they have new insight about health and counseling.”

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