University of Pittsburgh

How Standardized Patients Can Benefit Your Program

What is a Standardized Patient?

A Standardized Patient, or SP, is a person trained to present a clinical scenario in the same manner as a real patient for teaching, evaluation, or both. The Standardized Patient is trained using a scenario based on a real patient case. Well-prepared SPs are virtually indistinguishable from the real thing—the best of both worlds! The mission of the SP program is to have an SP realistically convey an illness to a student and do it in a consistent and measurable way. Ten SPs can be trained to do the same clinical case. No matter which SP interacts with the student, he or she would receive the same information and responses while still being unique each time. This way we accurately teach and test students according to one standard per case. Each case can be altered or revised as needed. We strive to set standards that can be accurately reproduced.

Why use Standardized Patients?

Standardized patients are non-biased and less concerned about their care. SPs can focus on the learners' actions and help them where deemed appropriate and necessary.

Other reasons include:


A particular patient problem or scenario is available at any time or any place. The learner/educator does not have to hope someone with a particular issue or problem will show up and agree to be seen. Educators can create an optimal learning environment, based on the learner's experience and the objectives of the session instead of modifying the session to the available patient's problem.


The Standardized Patient is trained to portray a scenario consistently every time, allowing each learner the same learning opportunity. Each learner will see the same patient problem presented in the same format. Standardization allows the educators and the learners to compare and contrast the unique performances. Testing learners’ patient skills using Standardized Patients ensures a more predictable, reliable, and fair assessment.


Learners have a chance to practice interviewing skills or physical exam skills in a safe setting. Standardized Patients are trained to provide an environment where learners can practice a particular interview approach or try a new physical exam for the first time without risking the comfort, modesty, or safety of a "real" patient. Learners can also have a chance to work in emotionally charged situations such as domestic violence, angry patients, or a bad-news case without risk. Standardized Patient encounters are learner-centered rather than patient-centered educational experience. Patient care in a clinical setting is not compromised. Clinical errors can be allowed to progress in order to teach the trainee the implications of, and how to correct, the errors. Encounters facilitate learner transition to care for real patients.


The cases that Standardized Patients portray can be adjusted to meet the needs of the learner, thus changing from simple to more complex.


Standardized Patients are a flexible educational tool. The encounter can "freeze" to discuss an issue or, if a teachable moment appears, use a technique called “time out and time in.” The SP also can be directed to play the case differently, with more anger or resistance for example, so the learning experience can be optimized based on the level of expertise of the learner.


The Standardized Patient is trained to provide feedback on the learner's professional manner, attitude, and interpersonal skills. Feedback is immediate and from the patient's point of view. Most of the time it is unique, and it may be the only source of information that the student would receive from a patient regarding communication or clinical skills.