AKRON — Cherry Dudley is a human guinea pig. She does it for the betterment of humanity, socialization, a few bucks and a periodic chuckle.
For several years Dudley, 61, has been playing the role of a standardized patient in various medical situations for future doctors to practice their diagnostic skills.
And, no, it's not akin to the episode of "Seinfeld" in which Kramer had a pretend brush with gonorrhea. There was one incident that made the Akron woman want to laugh — but we are getting ahead of ourselves.
You don't have to be an actor to do what Dudley, who used to work as a business analyst for Alltel, does at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, or NEOMED, in Rootstown Township, but a number of thespians do.
Holly Gerzina, executive director of the William G. Wasson, M.D., Center for Clinical Skills Training at NEOMED, said it's time that patients were part of the health-care team, and this is part of that effort.
The standardized patient is given a script in advance about simulating a particular medical scenario. The character might be asked to portray someone who has cancer, is a victim of domestic violence or is getting a pulmonary exam.
"Nobody ever took a plane and took a bunch of passengers transcontinental for the first time. They simulated. Why? Because it's a high-risk profession," Gerzina said. "Medicine and health professions are finally saying the same thing — we need to have people practice before they go out and deliver care."
Even further justification for standardized patient programs is that the way insurance companies operate today, students have less access to real patients. Hospital stays are generally very limited, and a patient may simply be too sick to see medical students.
Standardized patient programs are designed to be safe for both the patient and the learners, which may also include pharmacy and nurse practitioner students.
"As far as training, the standardized patient really gives you a chance to learn how to take a (medical) history and learn how to talk to a patient in a controlled environment," said Emily Bennett, 23, a fourth-year medical student at NEOMED. "And you're not worried that you are going to kill someone because you don't have the right diagnosis. These are standardized patients and don't actually have the diseases they are talking about."
While the pretend patient has a script that includes a name, age and medical issue, the student has only basic information, Dudley said.
"They will ask you questions, but you don't want to lead them," she said, adding that when it comes to something like back issues, the patient may suggest that she has pain when walking or standing.
It's then up to the student to make the diagnosis.
Each appointment takes place in an examining room and lasts 18 minutes. During the session, a faculty member or preceptor is listening and watching behind a two-way mirror.
When the appointment is complete, the student receives feedback from the actor and staff.
An upside of working as a standardized patient is that the patient is better equipped to judge a doctor's performance during real-life appointments. Some make the grade — others do not.
"What we do as standardized patients is assess the student's bedside manner," Dudley said. "I want them to be good doctors because I've had bad ones in the past. And I've also had the most wonderful doctors in the world.
"For instance, I had a surgeon who was so good that if he said, 'I'm going to rip off your arm, beat you over the head with it, and stick it down your throat,' I would have been fine with it," she joked. "I trusted him that much. His bedside manner was just that good."
Standardized patients can opt out of playing certain roles. Perhaps an actor would be comfortable portraying someone who is looking for a new doctor, but doesn't want to submit to a breast exam.
Dudley has done some volunteering for the Battered Women's Shelter of Summit and Medina Counties and knows how important it is to help students learn about domestic abuse.
Before playing an abuse victim, she had makeup applied to create bruises. Dudley said it was her most memorable assignment.
"In the scenario, the doctor was supposed to try to draw it out of me," she said. "The student was so good and empathetic that I cried."
But a job can be boring without a little humor.
"I had one little sweetie pie put on the (blood pressure) cuffs and had the stethoscope on my arm and was listening very intently," Dudley said, grinning. "He wasn't hearing and kept retaking my blood pressure. He still wasn't hearing.
"I knew what the problem was, but I'm not supposed to tell, so I just sat there. Eventually, he realized he didn't have the other end of the stethoscope in his ears."