Predoctoral students at the School of Dental Medicine are benefitting from a new teaching method that is being piloted during the 2009-10 academic year. Through collaboration with the School of Medicine’s Advanced Clinical Education Center, trained actors participate in the Introduction to Dentistry and Health Promotion and Disease Prevention courses to portray standardized patients so that students can learn and practice patient interaction skills.

In Introduction to Dentistry, students have the opportunity to call the standardized patient from a waiting room and are encouraged to make appropriate small talk while walking to the operatory. Once the standardized patient is seated in the chair, students proceed to conduct a health history interview.

“Performing dentistry involves a complex set of a variety of different skills: hand skills, critical thinking skills, and patient interaction skills,” said Dr. Deborah Polk, assistant professor in the Department of Dental Public Health/Information Management. “This is a logical outgrowth of the training our predoctoral students receive.”

The actors perform their role based on a script so that all students have the same experience. The interaction is conducted with a standardized patient, a facilitator and five students – one of whom is practicing the skills. Then the five students rotate so that they each get a chance to practice the skill and to observe their peers. The students learn by both practicing and observing others.

The actors and facilitators have gone through extensive training in order to provide feedback based on the lesson objective. The students get feedback from the facilitator, the standardized patient, and their peers. However, students are only permitted to provide their peers with positive feedback.

Dr. Polk prepares the cases for lessons and hopes this teaching method can be expanded into other courses at the School of Dental Medicine.

“It’s like a real patient interaction,” she said. “Students practice in a safe environment where there are no consequences if they make a mistake. After they have achieved a certain level of skill, then they can advance and work on a real patient.”

In Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, students practiced motivational interviewing. This teaching method could also be applied to lessons in smoking cessation or dealing with difficult or angry patients.

“For a lot of these skills we intuitively think, ‘oh, I know how to talk to these people’ and then you’re sort of surprised when you get in there and find out how difficult it really is,” said Dr. Polk. “There’s value in getting to experience simulated patient interaction before treating real patients.”