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How patient volunteers help train future doctors

As a third-year medical student, Sina Rusta-Sallehy says the experience has been a whirlwind.

He has worked through a myriad of challenging rotations, including internal medicine and surgery, all while honing his skills and deciding on a future direction for his career. “You spend at least 12 hours a day in the hospital. It’s been fascinating and such a wild ride.”

In the first two years of training, Sina says it was all about the nuts and bolts of anatomy, and he had minimal contact with real patients.

“Somebody is teaching you this is how the heart works, this is how the lungs work. You see inside the entire human body, but you kind of get lost in that because you forget this is a living, breathing person with a family and social problems. The patient is not just bed number six with hypertension.”

What medical training lacks in human contact in its first two years is swiftly remedied in year three. Sunnybrook has pioneered a novel approach of bringing in real patients to volunteer their time and expertise during simulated training sessions.

In a small classroom located in the Sunnybrook Canadian Simulation Centre, about 10 students gather per session to work through various scenarios, like getting a patient’s medical history before surgery. So the interaction and feedback from real patient volunteers, like Ruth Milikin, couldn’t be more hands on. It’s all part of a greater initiative to involve the patient’s voice in education, research and various care programs at Sunnybrook.

With two surgeries recently behind her, Ruth knows exactly what patients need from their medical team.

“It’s important to have the patient’s voice with students-in-training, because generally what they have is an experience of reading a textbook or going to a lecture,” she says. “But until you’ve actually interacted with a patient, you won’t have any realistic idea of my experience and how it feels on my end.”

Ruth plays the role of a patient or loved one during the exercise, observes and takes careful notes and then offers her take on the students’ questions, body language and overall approach. She’s also there to answer any questions they may have.

She comes in monthly for this role, and is happy the students have taken to her. “Apparently I’m a five-star performer, which is nice because I’m giving a message that needs to be heard and they are happy to hear it.” She says the hope is to instill empathy and a gracious bedside manner for all the patients these future doctors will encounter.

Sina, who is considering specializing in anesthesiology, was particularly interested in what Ruth found comforting during her surgeries.

“She said basic eye contact, maybe a light touch on the arm saying ‘we’re going to take care of you.’ Just trying to be a normal, nice person during this very intense training that we undergo.” He says.

It all comes back to a very basic but fundamental point: “I’m treating a person, not a disease.”

About the author

Monica Matys

Monica Matys

Monica Matys is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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