Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

, Volume 35, Issue 2, pp 134–162

The Moral Aesthetics of Simulated Suffering in Standardized Patient Performances

Article

Abstract

Standardized patient (SP) performances are staged clinical encounters between health-professional students and people who specialize in role-playing the part of patients. Such performances have in recent years become increasingly central to the teaching and assessment of clinical skills in U.S. medical schools. SP performances are valued for being both “real” (in that they involve interaction with a real person, unlike written examinations) and “not real” (in that the SP does not actually suffer from the condition portrayed, unlike an actual patient). This article considers how people involved in creating SP performances reconcile a moral commitment to avoid suffering (to keep it “not real”), with an aesthetic commitment to realistically portray it (to keep it “real”). The term “moral aesthetic” is proposed, to indicate a sensibility that combines ideas about what is morally right with ideas about what is aesthetically compelling. Drawing on ethnographic research among SPs and SP program staff and medical faculty who work closely with them, this article argues that their work of creating “realism” in simulated clinical encounters encompasses multiple different (and sometimes conflicting) understandings and practices of realism, informed by three different moral aesthetics: (1) a moral aesthetic of induction, in which an accurate portrayal with a well-documented provenance serves to introduce experientially distant forms of suffering; (2) a moral aesthetic of inoculation, in which the authenticity and emotional impact of a performance are meant to inoculate students against the impact of future encounters with suffering; (3) a moral aesthetic of presence, generating forms of voice and care that are born out of the embodied presence of suffering individuals in a clinical space. All are premised on the assumption that risk and suffering can be banished from SP performances. This article suggests, however, that SP performances necessarily raise the same difficult, important, fundamentally ethical questions that are always involved in learning from and on human beings who are capable of suffering, and who need and deserve recognition and respect as well as care.

Keywords

Standardized patient (SP) performance Moral aesthetics Simulation Realism Emotional labor 

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of WashingtonSeattleUSA

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