Student actors, health sciences students coming together for clinical simulations

Professional standardized patient Brian Plocharczyk (far left) discusses that line of work with WCU student actors during a workshop held at the Health and Human Sciences Building.

A cross-college collaboration at Western Carolina University soon will bring together budding student actors from the College of Fine and Performing Arts and health professionals-in-training from the College of Health and Human Sciences to create an initiative that may be the first of its kind on a U.S. college campus.

The student actors and actresses from WCU’s School of Stage and Screen will take on the roles of “standardized patients” and engage in simulated patient and health care provider interactions with students from several Health and Human Sciences departments.

“The use of standardized patients will provide our students with an exceptional learning experience which includes immediate and objective feedback on their performance,” said Doug Keskula, dean of the College of Health and Human Sciences.

The concept of WCU student actors serving as standardized patients for the university’s health programs has been talked about for two years, but the project officially got off the ground over the weekend of Jan. 26-28 when two dozen student actors and 10 Health and Human Sciences faculty members attended an 11-hour workshop at WCU’s Health and Human Sciences Building.

Brian Plocharczyk, a professional standardized patient and actor from Chicago, traveled to WCU to lead the workshop. It included discussions about the services provided by standardized patients and time for all the students involved to take part in simulations, said Jayme McGhan, director of the School of Stage and Screen in the College of Fine and Performing Arts.

Plans are to choose six to 10 of the student actors to receive further training with an eye toward conducting a full-fledged test of the concept with the participation of Health and Human Sciences students in four to six weeks. If all goes well and the students get good reviews from Health and Human Sciences faculty members, the goal is to have a pool of 20 to 30 standardized patients ready to go by next fall semester, he said.

The student actors will get paid for their services by the College of Health and Human Sciences, but they will receive other long-term benefits, McGhan said. When the time comes for them to leave WCU, the students should be able to obtain immediate work as standardized patients to support their acting ambitions. “They can make a full living as a standardized patient while they’re going to auditions and trying to land film and TV roles. It gives them a very practical ability…and it’s acting,” he said.

However, the work as standardized patients won’t be an easy gig for the student actors. The job requires “super-smart” individuals who can pay attention to communication models, learn medical terminology and take part in improvisational back-and-forth with health students, McGhan said.

Having a pool of standardized patients on hand would be a big plus for WCU’s health programs, but it also could benefit regional health care institutions that conduct similar simulations and have a need for trained participants, he said.

McGhan called the initiative “singularly unique” among college campuses and “an awesome example of cross-college collaboration.”

Keskula said the use of standardized patients is well-documented in the education of health professionals as a means of enhancing their clinical experiences, allowing them to practice communication skills, empathy, clinical assessment and clinical reasoning in a safe environment.

The energy and excitement among the student actors participating in the workshop was impressive, Keskula said. “We are excited about this collaboration that will create exceptional learning opportunities for students from both colleges,” he said. “There is amazing potential for the students to learn and help each other.”