Medical Student and Faculty Perceptions of Volunteer Outpatients Versus Simulated Patients in Communication Skills Training

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PurposeTo determine whether medical students and faculty perceive differences in the effectiveness of interactions with real patients versus simulated patients (SPs) in communication skills training.MethodIn 2008, the authors recruited volunteer outpatients (VOs) from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine internal medicine practice to participate in communication skills training for all first-year medical students. VOs and SPs were assigned to clinic rooms in the simulation center. Each group of five students and its preceptor rotated through randomly assigned rooms on two of four session days; on both days, each student interviewed one patient for 15 minutes, focusing on past medical and family history or social history. Patients used their own histories, not scripts; students were not blinded to patient type. Students and faculty then rated aspects of the interview experience. Generalized linear latent and mixed-models analysis was used to compare ratings of communication skills training with VOs versus SPs.ResultsAll 121 first-year students participated in 242 interviews, resulting in 237 usable questionnaires (98%). They rated their experiences with VOs significantly higher than those with SPs on comfort, friendliness, amount of learning, opportunity to build relationships, and overall meeting of communication skills training needs. The 24 faculty preceptors' ratings of the 242 interactions did not differ significantly between VOs and SPs.ConclusionsUse of VOs was well received by students and faculty for teaching communication skills. Expanding and further studying VOs' participation will allow greater understanding of their potential role in communication skills training of preclinical medical students.

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