Wake Forest med students learn bedside manner with patient actors

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- "Hey, how are you doing?" asks Lauren West-Livingston, a third-year medical student at Wake Forest School of Medicine, part of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

"I've got this cough I can't seem to shake,” notes her patient, for this day, Jeff Sparks.

But, just like the famous TV commercial from a couple of decades ago, where the actor looks into the camera and says, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV,” Sparks is playing the role of patient.

"How long has this cough been going on?" asks West-Livingston.

"Gosh, about three weeks, now," says Sparks as he and his wife give a full medical history, as if it were theirs. But it’s not.

Sparks and his wife are volunteers, playing a role of the patient – complete with a history, symptoms, other key information – that he recites to help students like Lauren learn not just how to talk to patients in a way that gets the right information, but helps medical students learn how to communicate with patients in a way that forms a team.

Sparks is doing his, “master thespian” role as a patient actor.

“Until we age out. I can only play a 40-year-old for several more years,” he says with a chuckle.

These are valuable sessions for the students.

“You can know everything you want to from a book or from a list, but you have to constantly work with patients - you have to take that into account with everything you do,” says Lauren.

“We have to remind ourselves and our students that we can't be staring at a computer, all the time, right? We have to be engaging in conversation with our patients who are real people,” notes Dr. Tim Peters, the associate dean at the medical school. “These are opportunities for people in our community, as well.”

That’s true – Wake Forest is always looking for new patient actors. If you’d like to learn how you can be part of the program, here's a link.