Before medical students treat patients in real-life situations, they need practice. Students gain that necessary experience through simulated patient interactions in the UK College of Medicine’s standardized patient (SP) program.

SP program staff Joseph Gatton and Melissa Wilkeson are well-equipped to ensure the program creates authentic clinical experiences.

Both Gatton and Wilkeson are longtime actors and theatre enthusiasts. They use their expertise to coach standardized patients on portraying a wide variety of clinical scenarios. They also manage the processes for student feedback and maintain close contact with the College of Medicine’s regional campus program coordinators, Steve Briggs, EdD, and Rebecca Wren, to ensure consistency in training.

“There are very few careers that actively train people for communication, but acting definitely gives you those skills and that training,” Gatton said. “And communication is important for doctors to learn.”

Ever since UK’s SP program was established in the 1990s, it has been a “game changer” in medical education, according to Gatton.

Learners practice with standardized patients by taking a history, performing a physical exam, and counseling. They then receive feedback from standardized patients through objective structured clinical examinations (OSCEs).

“Simulation training is such a huge part of health education,” Wilkeson said. “As the years have gone by, the faculty have become more and more involved, which has been wonderful in helping enhance the program.”

Both Gatton and Wilkeson got their start with the SP program as standardized patients, so they know how actors can offer the best learning experience for students.

Wilkeson said she “fell into the role” of SP educator. A Lexington native, she earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts at UK, then studied in Chicago and at the Burt Reynolds Institute for Theatre Training in Florida. She moved to New York City to pursue acting roles and during that time worked as an assistant to the business editor at Newsweek magazine. After three years in New York, Wilkeson returned to Lexington for acting opportunities closer to home.

Gatton’s acting resume includes multiple plays and commercials. He even had a significant part in the Hallmark movie, “Midway to Love,” (shot in Midway, Ky.) in which he played the father of the main character. Early in his career, he spent “a very long year” in Los Angeles pursuing film training and acting roles. He returned to Lexington, Ky., where he served as tour manager for the Lexington Children’s Theatre Company and ran the Shakespeare Festival for a couple of years.

As SP program coordinators, Gatton’s and Wilkeson’s shared passion for the arts shines in their enthusiasm for the program, their skillful direction of standardized patients, and the movie posters that clad their office walls at the College of Medicine Learning Center. 

And when they are not at their day jobs, they remain active in local productions.

Learn More about the Standardized Patient Program

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