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The Suburbanite
  • Hospital seeks actors to play patients

  • Like to act? The Northeast Ohio Medical University is looking for people willing to role play as patients.

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  • Kathy Mitchell of Canton has had symptoms of diabetes, depression, physical abuse and a brain tumor. Sheri Risaliti of Jackson Township shows signs being bipolar and clinically depressed, and of having diabetes and high blood pressure. Pam Weibel of Lexington Township has been diagnosed as bipolar, menopausal, diabetic, hypertensive and alcoholic.
    These women are not hypochondriacs. They are “standardized patients.” In layman’s terms — fakers.
    All three make regular trips to the Northeast Ohio Medical University (NEOMED) in Rootstown to pose as patients so medical students can practice their skills.
    “They give you a script with who you are, your age, family, symptoms you’re having,” Weibel said. “Sometimes you know what’s wrong with you, sometimes you don’t.”
    The standardized patient (SP) program is housed in the William G. Wasson Center at NEOMED, named for the late thoracic surgeon from Canton. The center, and the standardized patients, are used by medical students, nurses from other universities, pharmacy students, emergency response personnel and high school students attending medical summer camps.
    Holly Gerzina, executive director of the Wasson Center, said they are looking for new standardized patients especially younger people.
    “We get a lot of retired folks, retired educators,” Gerzina said. “It’s difficult to find (younger) people because they are busy in the workforce. We’re also working to increase our cultural diversity, with patients from all ethnicities, sexual orientations, religious backgrounds.”
    SELLING THE SYMPTOMS
    Mitchell said she gets called four times a year but would like to go more often.
    “I absolutely love doing it,” Mitchell said, echoing the enthusiasm of most of the patients. “It’s like an acting job. You’re given a scenario ... then the doctors, nurses, or practitioners diagnose the problem and come up with a plan.”
    Being a patient is a paying gig, but most don’t do it for the money. Weibel said her history of real medical problems taught her the importance of good bedside manner — one of the goals of the program.
    “They feel its important (for the medical students) to know how to talk to the patients and know how to connect with them so they can understand what they are going though,” Weibel said. “I said, oh my Lord, all the things I’ve gone through in my life, I wish I had had some doctors who had that kind of training. A lot of doctors are very good but have no people skills. So I thought it was valuable and I signed up.”
    Tracy Nicholson of Canton liked being a standardized patient so much, she’d burn a vacation day from her job at Stark County Jobs and Family Services to spend time at NEOMED .
    “You do feel you are making an impact on people’s lives,” said Nicholson, who eventually left Family Services to take a job at NEOMED. She now trains others to be a patient. “I still love it. If a patient gets sick and can’t make it, I fill in.”
    Page 2 of 3 - HOW THEY DO IT
    When standardized patients arrive at the Wasson Center, they gather in a “green room” to get assignments, look over the scripts, then, if necessary, change into hospital gowns. Each patient goes to an exam room where they see medical students one at a time, each for about an hour. The students interview them about their medical history and about their symptoms, and sometimes perform an exam.
    The interaction is observed through a one-way mirror by a physician-instructor. Dr. Roger Musa of North Canton was at NEOMED recently, watching third-year medical students perform a cardio-vascular exam.
    “They have to do it correctly, can’t just go through the motions,” Musa said. “Afterward, we give feedback. I always ask the patient for any comments. ‘Did they push too hard? Were they gentle?’ We also look at body language — are they showing concern?”
    Risaliti treats her roles like a method actor, and won’t even go back to the green room between appointments, preferring to “stay in character.”
    “I did one case — I was so good at it, the student had to put his head between his knees,” Risaliti said.  
    Standardized patients are asked to react as they would in a real situation, which can be taxing, especially after the third or fourth portrayal.
    “If you’re doing somebody very ill, it can really sap you,” Weibel said. “But some are so fun to do, you come home hyped.”
    Nicholson said her favorite character is “the very mean patient in a very bad mood.” Risaliti and Weibel both enjoy the challenge of portraying someone who is bipolar.
    Mitchell and others said the unexpected benefit to working as a patient is that it makes them more informed when they go to their own doctors.
    “I’ve learned so much there that when I go to my regular doctor, I know what to ask. I know what questions he should be asking,” Mitchell said. “I can tell him my symptoms without being so emotional. I can tell if they aren’t asking the right questions. I can be an advocate for my own health.”
    WANT TO BE A “FAKE PATIENT?”
    Who can apply?  Anyone, but there is a special need for children, young adults and people with culturally diverse backgrounds.
    How can I apply?  Call the Wasson Center at 330-325-6747, and they will send you an application form. You’ll be called in for an interview and orientation to be sure you know what to expect and will be comfortable with it.
    When can I apply? Anytime. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis.
    What are the qualifications? Somebody with a genuine interest in serving as an educator. You need to be able to memorize, to take direction, to be prompt.
    Page 3 of 3 - How often do I have to work?  There’s no minimum hours requirement. Standardized patients are called in as needed.  
    What does it pay? $10 to $20 per hour, depending on the demands of the role. Most assignments are for a half day.
    Source:  Holly Gerzina, executive director, Wasson Center, NEOMED
    Reach Saimi at 330-580-8493 or saimi.bergmann@cantonrep.com. On Twitter: sbergmannREP