College of Psychology: Faculty Articles


Family Medicine Residents' Performance with Detected Versus Undetected Simulated Patients Posing as Problem Drinkers

Document Type


Publication Date



Simulated Patients, Family Medicine Residents, Medical Education, Clinical Competence, Physician-Patient Relations, Primary Health Care, Problem Drinking

Publication Title

Medical Education Online








Background: Simulated patients are commonly used to evaluate medical trainees. Unannounced simulated patients provide an accurate measure of physician performance.

Purpose: To determine the effects of detection of SPs on physician performance, and identify factors leading to detection.

Methods: Fifty-six family medicine residents were each visited by two unannounced simulated patients presenting with alcohol-induced hypertension or insomnia. Residents were then surveyed on their detection of SPs.

Results: SPs were detected on 45 out of 104 visits. Inner city clinics had higher detection rates than middle class clinics. Residents’ checklist and global rating scores were substantially higher on detected than undetected visits, for both between-subject and within-subject comparisons. The most common reasons for detection concerned SP demographics and behaviour; the SP “did not act like a drinker” and was of a different social class than the typical clinic patient.

Conclusions: Multi-clinic studies involving residents experienced with SPs should ensure that the SP role and behavior conform to physician expectations and the demographics of the clinic. SP station testing does not accurately reflect physicians’ actual clinical behavior and should not be relied on as the primary method of evaluation. The study also suggests that physicians’ poor performance in identifying and managing alcohol problems is not entirely due to lack of skill, as they demonstrated greater clinical skills when they became aware that they were being evaluated. Physicians’ clinical priorities, sense of responsibility and other attitudinal determinants of their behavior should be addressed when training physicians on the management of alcohol problems.



Peer Reviewed

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