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Updated 12:00 PM October 6, 2003



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She's not a patient, but she plays one at U-M

In real life, Erin Block is a junior studying English and communications, and a public relations intern with the U-M Health System.

(Photo by Marcia Ledford, U-M Photo Services)

When she enters an exam room, she becomes someone else entirely: Jennifer Miller, a "patient" interviewed by medical students about her sexual history.

Block is a standardized patient instructor, a staff position in the Medical School in which she is an actress with a cause: helping to improve medical students' skills, including their bedside manner. It is a role Block takes seriously because she knows she can influence the way doctors of the future interact with their patients.

"That's your one chance to give them an idea of what it's like to be a patient," she says.

When Block steps into the role of Jennifer Miller, she sits in a simulated exam room while a student interviews her for 20-30 minutes.

"You have to be able to give them the story line and improvise," she says. "You go into that room, and you really become that person. It feels like you're in a doctor's office, and you really feel that nervousness."

Block is in her third year as a standardized patient instructor. "I got into it because I wanted to learn how to improvise and to be more comfortable as a communicator," she says.

Other standardized patient instructors portray different types of cases. In one of these, Block says, the medical students have to break the news to a patient that he or she has cancer.

When the interviews end, the instructors resume their true identity and provide students with feedback based on how they felt as a patient in the student's care. Block's reviews tend to be higher for people who are personable and reach a "humane level," she says.

"It's reassuring to know that the next generation will be that much better," she says.

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