Characterizing standardized patients and genetic counseling graduate education

Lisa Jay Kessler, University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine
Denise LaMarra, University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine
Ian M. MacFarlane, Elizabethtown College
Melissa Heller, Arcadia University
Kathleen D. Valverde, University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine


Standardized patients (SPs) are laypersons trained to portray patients, family members, and others in a consistent, measurable manner to teach and assess healthcare students, and to provide practice for emotionally and medically challenging cases. SP methodology has been studied with practicing genetic counselors; however, there is minimal empirical evidence characterizing its use in genetic counseling (GC) education. The Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling (ACGC) Standards of Accreditation for Graduate Programs in Genetic Counseling include SP sessions as one way to achieve up to 20% of the 50 participatory cases required for graduation. The purpose of the current project was to determine the scope, frequency, and timing of SP methodology in ACGC-accredited programs to establish baseline usage, which happened prior to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. A 40-item investigator-created survey was developed to document the scope and frequency of SP use among programs. The survey was distributed through the Association of Genetic Counseling Program Directors’ (AGCPD) listserv to 43 accredited and 6 programs under development. Surveys were analyzed from 25 accredited programs (response rate = 58%). Seventeen of these programs report inclusion of SP methodology in the curricula (68%), of which 13 report working with an established SP program. SPs are used predominantly for role-plays (70.6%), individualized instruction and remediation (29.4%), and for other reasons such as lecture demonstration, final examinations, practicing skills, and assessing students’ goals. Sixteen of the participating programs use SPs to give GC students experience disclosing positive test results. Other details vary among the GC programs including the use of trained SPs, volunteer or paid SPs, actors with and without SP training, or GC students acting as patients. This study demonstrates that GC program SP experiences differ, but are largely viewed as valuable by the programs. Many GC programs report using SP encounters to create multiple opportunities for students to practice and refine clinical skills similar to SPs in medical school.