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New Day Job for Actors: Playing Faux Medical 'Patients'

Standardized Patient Tired of your day job waiting tables or working retail? Well these days, actors are turning "sick days" into a whole new sort of day job that pays the bills between gigs and keeps their performance gears spinning.

The Weill Cornell Medical College in Manhattan is just one of many hospitals and medical schools using professional actors as "standardized patients" to simulate a clinical diagnosis for their med students. Paying professional actors $25 an hour, Weill Cornell trains performers to portray the symptons of specific illnesses as they are examined by med students who need to learn which diagnosing questions to ask. It's as much of an exercise in withholding as it is providing the students with information. The interaction between actor and student are videotaped, allowing the students to then be judged on their empathy, communication, and ability to diagnose and gain helpful feedback.

But it's also a cool job for the actors. Quinn Lemley, an actress who plays Rita Hayworth in a one-woman show at night, doubles as a standardized patient during the day, excited by the ability to play a whole range of characters in one eight-hour session. Other actors who have appeared in commercials and on TV shows like Mad Men have also been hired.

Dr. Yoon Kang told the Wall Street Journal that programs using standarized patients help with patient safety. "In simulated environments, students can practice and make mistakes -- and no one is going to get hurt," he says. But Dr. Kang struggles with her casting decisions, even though due to the current economy, she and her staff are in possession of hundreds of headshots and resumes. (Denise Lock, an actress and opera singer who is part of the hospital's ensemble cast, told WSJ, "At least you're acting on some level," since so many actors are out of work.)

"We want stars but we need to temper their star quality," Kang said. "We don't want the Laurence Oliviers to take too much dramatic license." Sometimes performers can take the scenario too far, such as one actor who was hired to play a difficult elderly patient and managed to frighten the med student with his prop cane. 

And sometimes it proves to be a rather challenging or awkward gig for the actor. Neal Mayer, who has appeared on Broadway in Les Misérables, was asked to play a meningitis patient, requiring him to stay still for hours with his eyes closed while being prodded by med students. He had also been asked by a first-year med student if he was pregnant, and upon reminding her he was a man, was only asked again. 

For the students, it's good practice in diagnosis through acting, but can also be a bit intimidating. David Phillips, now a fourth-year student at Weill Cornell, said that he was a little overwhelmed at first, both by the camera and having to ask personal questions to the patients. Having struggled with not being able to ask any questions without blushing, the practice helps him become less embarrassed for when he'll be diagnosing real patients. 

At the University of San Francisco, the School of Nursing and the School of the Performing Arts have teamed up to provide their own standardized patient training, within their own campus. This program provides benefits for not only the nursing students, but the actors as well.

“The overall experience was fun, exciting, and made me realize that I am capable of fully engaging as a character in a hospital scene with extreme medical conditions,” Rachel Lozano said in an article by the USF Newsroom in 2009. “I actually felt like the real patient and thought like one also, such as how I am actually feeling with pain throughout my body, not being able to see my family and friends and being confined.”

This job has also created a whole new community in the acting world. In May of this year, the Institute for Clinical Competence at New York College of Osteopathic Medicine at New York Institute of Technology held a conference for all of these standardized patient actors. The conference was an outlet for swapping war stories, performing skits, and exploring their roles in helping a whole new generation of doctors.

So if you need some practice in character acting, or a new day job that's not so bland, send your resume and headshots to a med school near you. Play sick, boost your bank account, and help save the world at the same time.

-- Ali Mierzejewski

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