BROWARD COUNTY, Fla. - Help wanted. Hours flexible, pay good. Those with a morbid fear of doctors need not apply.
For years, local medical schools have relied on teams of so-called professional patients to help train medical students in patient interactions and clinical skills.
Nova Southeastern University is looking to recruit more "patients" of all ages. Most professional patients are recruited by word of mouth, said Dr. Martha Echols, assistant dean of medical education at NSU's College of Osteopathic Medicine.
"A number of people are unemployed in Broward County, so we were going to try to recruit people for the program," Echols said. "People who are out of work might like it. It's not steady work, but it pays well."
Many surrogate patients are working professionals, students or retired folks looking to make extra money and to help train America's future medical professionals. They provide the kind of training you can't get from a plastic model.
Most are healthy but are given a script to follow in portraying a certain illness, say rheumatoid arthritis or asthma or congestive heart failure. The student is expected to make a diagnosis and create a treatment plan based on the patient's "illness."
NSU and the University of Miami both rely on a team of about 50 professional patients.
Most medical schools pay anywhere from $15 to $25 per hour, said Dr. Alex Mechaber, senior associate dean for undergraduate medical education at University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine.
But the more lucrative pay goes to the patients who teach the more sensitive male and female genital and breast exams.
Why the extra pay?
Because these professional patients are specially trained and the exams are more invasive, Mechaber said.
At UM, the women who teach the breast and pelvic exam are paid $40 per student and the men who teach the male genital and rectal exam make $30 per student, said Annie Maurer, manager of UM's clinical skills medical education program.
Nova pays professional patients – also known as standardized patients -- $20 an hour to teach general exams.
But those doing the more specialized male and female exam are paid $35 per student.
As a professional patient, Miami Shores journalist Martha Sternberg gets the female exam five times in the same day once a week during UM's fall semester. Michael Mitchell, a hospital secretary from Fort Lauderdale, may get the male exam up to 12 times in one sitting.
They say they do it in the name of science -- and for the extra money.
Such work is not for everyone.
"No one wants to have eight pap smears in one night," Echols said. "Most people think it's strange. People look at you like you're a little crazy. But they are helping teach future doctors."
Back in the 1970s, medical schools around the country relied on prostitutes as subjects in the male and female exams, Mechaber said.
But today's professional patient is trained to give feedback and guidance.
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