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Training Students with Patient Actors Improves Communication: A Pilot Study

Anderson, Heather A.*; Young, Jack; Marrelli, Danica; Black, Rudolph; Lambreghts, Kimberly§; Twa, Michael D.*

doi: 10.1097/OPX.0000000000000112

Purpose Effective patient communication is correlated with better health outcomes and patient satisfaction, but is challenging to train, particularly with difficult clinical scenarios such as loss of sight. In this pilot study, we evaluated the use of simulated patient encounters with actors to train optometric students.

Methods Students were recorded during encounters with actors and assigned to an enrichment group performing five interactions with instructor feedback (n = 6) or a no-enrichment group performing two interactions without feedback (n = 4). Student performance on first and last encounters was scored with (1) subjective rating of performance change using a visual analog scale (anchors: much worse/much better), (2) yes/no response: Would you recommend this doctor to a friend/relative?, and (3) average score on questions from the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) assessment of doctor communication skills. Three clinical instructors, masked to student group assignments and the order of patient encounters they viewed, provided scores in addition to self-evaluation by students and patient-actors.

Results Using the visual analog scale, students who received enrichment were rated more improved than the no-enrichment group by masked examiners (+18 vs. −11% p = 0.04) and self-evaluation (+79 vs. +27% p = 0.009), but not by actors (+31 vs. +43%). The proportion of students recommended significantly increased following enrichment for masked examiners (61% vs. 94%; p < 0.001), but not actors (100 vs. 83%). Average ABIM assessment scores were not significantly different by any rating group: masked instructors, actors, or self-ratings.

Conclusions The findings of this study suggest five simulated patient encounters with feedback result in measurable improvement in student-patient communication skills as rated by masked examiners.

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College of Optometry (HAA, DM, RB, KL, MDT) and The School of Theatre & Dance (JY), University of Houston, Houston, Texas.

Heather A. AndersonCollege of Optometry University of Houston 505 J Davis Armistead Bldg Houston, TX 77204-2020 e-mail:

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© 2014 American Academy of Optometry