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James Ennis On The Use of ACEs & Roleplayers In Clinical Education

 James Ennis Clinical Lead at The University of Chester Physician Associate Programme

James Ennis is currently Clinical Lead at The University of Chester Physician Associate Programme. He has worked with ACEs both as student Physician Associate, and also used ACEs when he was teaching at The University of Birmingham and latterly at Chester University. Here we have an overview of his contribution to the Meducate Academy ACE Online Conference 2021 in an abridged form. If this sparks your interest please watch the attached video and share the link with colleagues and friends.

“Today on the conference, I’m just going to quickly give you an overview of how we use Associate Clinical Educators at Chester University. This was quite a new concept to Chester and as I’ve recently moved from Birmingham up to the area, I decided to bring the Associate Clinical Educator role up with me. We consider the ACEs to be an integral part of the teaching team, and so I’m now going to talk about how we use them and where we use them. I’m going to give you some quotes from our students about their experience in working with ACEs on the course and more importantly a little about simulation and the ACEs themselves.

“I’d like to give you a balanced opinion on the role because there are some perceived threats, in my opinion about the use of ACEs and roleplayers. I want to talk about the future development too at some point. The main point that should come across is that the ACE can give accurate Hi-Fidelity feedback to both the teacher about the student and more importantly to the student themselves.

“Typically a roleplayer is used as a live patient often able to give feedback to the student in terms of their communication skills. The ACE does this and more. They can give  feedback on the physical examination skills themselves, both from the point of view of safety and technique. We’ve kind of gone away from the compartmentalisation of history taking and then  physical examination skills and we have looked at it more as a kind of an integrated model which is how clinicians truly consult. As well as that, we use the ACEs in specialist roles for example intimate examinations.

“We also use the all singing all dancing SIM Man. This is what we would typically think of with regard to high fidelity simulation. Of course we do use the Sim Men as well, particularly for emergency scenarios, but we also use the ACEs as part of a role play that would fit into the scenario and so the communication isn’t lost during the interaction.

“During the pandemic we also had to change the way we worked with ACEs and a lot of the work was carried out online. This also fitted in with the growth of online consultations that are now part of a clinicians responsibility. Of course this is useful for maybe online medication reviews but not for someone presenting with acute abdominal pain.

“To maintain balance of opinion I’ve captured a few of our most recent students/staff liaison minutes from meetings and these  are from our year two students. These are kind of common themes so I’ve just picked a few just to quickly touch on.  Looking at the completely comprehensively positive feedback from from students on the ACEs role and what they give to the student.

“Many students said that they find working with the ACE far less threatening, particularly when making the inevitable mistakes while performing physical examinations, and they were able to refine their technique with the ACE. However, I would like to  mention that it does say that mannequins and other types of simulation may be just as helpful.

“Now, what I would say is, I don’t see the ACE role completely dominating simulation in medical education. It’s very much used as an adjunct and that’s how we now utilise our ACEs. Also  the students obviously get quite twitchy around OSCE season assessment periods. Again, we found the ACE  to be  incredibly helpful, not just for improving students technique and examination skills but also in building their confidence.

“Again, as Professor Jim Parle mentioned previously, the students really responded positively to the ACE role in working on things that they find specifically difficult. One of the things I’d like to highlight is the MSK examinations. It’s one thing that our ACEs really cover in depth with our students. All of our ACEs are heavily trained in MSK examination technique as I’m sure Uzo will talk about in far greater depth in his talk.

“The student feedback has always been positive and more time with ACEs is constantly being requested. This is why we really are so keen on simulation with ACEs.

“I’m sure most of you haven’t used ACEs or simulated patients in any great detail, but you will find that they have had some push back from institutes, mainly because of  the financial burden and restricted budgets. The way we’ve worked around this, is I would far prefer to have the human factor in  simulation than simply by props and Sim Men, sometimes costing up to £80,000. Sim Men have their place, but I would prefer to spend our money towards the use of ACEs. I have  certainly not had any problems from my institute with  getting the financial backing, especially when we keep  getting such excellent feedback.

“We haven’t yet got a great amount of evidence on the  student and patient outcome from such interventions and that’s something I’ll come onto later.

“Another thing, although the ACE is highly trained they are of course not a substitute for a skilled clinician. They are always available to discuss and answer questions of a clinical nature and each supports the other. The ACE and the clinician work as a team.

“So, that’s just a quick overview of where I’m going with my research and I would invite anybody to contact me if they are interested in this subject. I’m constantly monitoring the impact the ACEs have on student performance, and therefore patient outcomes after training. Take a look at the slides I have provided and I am as always interested in any questions you might have.”


Click arrows to view PowerPoint slides of this talk by James Ennis

The Importance Of Simulation In Medical Education

Professor Jim Parle discusses the use of Associate Clinical Educators at the online conference

Professor Parle was our keynote speaker at the conference and it was an honour to have him join us. What follows is an abridged version of the talk. If you want to view the complete talk it is available in the video above.

“I’ve been involved with the ACE process for something like 15-18 years or so. I am now a retired professor at the University of Birmingham and I’ve been using ACEs and similar kinds of approaches to education for a long time. What I’m going to do today is to go straight into talking about what ACEs are and why we introduced them into the Physician Associate Course and what sparked my interest in education generally.

“We used ACEs on the PA programme for probably at least 15 years if not longer, so for today’s conference I would like to spend more time talking about simulation generally. Also, would like to talk about why we need simulation and why I think we need more simulation and why I think we need high fidelity simulation by which I mean using real human beings, not computers or robots!

“Obviously there’s an ethical issue about performing intimate or any kind of physical examination on actual patients. When I was a student, which is quite a long time ago, we used to examine patients without consent. The patient wasn’t really given an opportunity to say no.

“Obviously you should never do this kind of thing and fortunately, times have changed. I remember my first female patient examination, in which I was embarrassed. She was embarrassed, and I was probably incompetent. I don’t think I hurt the patient, but I didn’t know what I was doing. Looking back now, it was a ridiculous way to learn to carry out examinations. That is one reason we need to think about simulation.

“There’s also the point that medical students need repeated practise and repeated, focused and relevant feedback. You don’t really get that from a patient and when you examine a patient, they rarely know whether you’re doing a good job. We don’t really give them a voice, so we need to have or recruit a patient or patient substitute who is skilled in that area.

“There’s also the issue that students arrive with different levels of skill. You therefore need somebody who can work at the level the student is at. We can’t expect a real patient to do that, as they’ve got their own problems and their own things to focus on when in a consultation. An ACE, however, can do that and more, because we have trained them to be able to show certain kinds of pathology or abnormalities.

“I’ll give you an example: A patient comes off his or her bike and injures their chest. Maybe a couple of fractured ribs and difficulty breathing. If you were to examine an actual patient, they will be in a great deal of pain. They will have tenderness around the area and having restricted breathing. It would be unethical to subject an actual patient to multiple examinations by new students. With an ACE, that problem won’t occur. Some of our ACEs can even demonstrate asymmetric breathing and can obviously be examined throughout the day by many students with no ill effects.

“We can therefore reproduce an extremely convincing simulation with an actual person who the student has to interact with just like an actual patient, but they’re not putting a patient through all that kind of discomfort.

“I just want to add the importance of recognising what is also normal and an ACE can present both sides of this situation. Consider the previous example of asymmetric breathing. The ACE can easily demonstrate what is normal, then quickly change to abnormal. I can only assert that it’s much easier to learn something that’s abnormal when you have something normal to compare it with and, obviously, vice versa. The ACE  can do this. Is able to switch asymmetric breathing too symmetrical breathing and back again so the student can see the difference and we as human beings are good at spotting differences but not so good at spotting absolute values. On a similar but not quite the same theme, I am concerned that if we learn something incorrectly, then it becomes difficult to unlearn it.

“I think it’s really important when students are learning physical examination skills that they compare normal with abnormal there and then. This means that they get immediate feedback, and which they don’t necessarily get with mannequins.

“Because of austerity and the current COVID crisis, students are not able to wander as freely around the wards interacting with patients as they did during my time as a student. So pressure on clinical learning environments and the clinicians who might teach us has become more and more restricted. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for students, whether medical, physician associates or pharmacists, and I’m sure it’s true of other clinical professions that an ACE could fulfill that role.

“An ACE is somebody who’s been trained to use their body and their psyche in educating clinicians by responding appropriately when asked to do something by a student. An ACE, as well as being a responsive patient, can also play a naïve patient, so if simple instructions are not given, the ACE will respond appropriately. If the student wants to take a blood pressure, for example, then the ACE knows exactly how this should be done. An ACE can replicate being a patient who has never had it done and do a variety of things that will affect the blood pressure reading. The ACE can then teach the student how to do it correctly. The student can see the blood pressure go up and down when a patient moves their arm or flexes their muscles. They will see the blood pressure go up and down. The student then gets the reason for doing it correctly and shows that they can do it correctly. This is immediate feedback and students love feedback. They’re always asking for more feedback! If it applies to the individual students’ strengths and weaknesses, they then improve straight away.

“So in conclusion I think I would say that what ACEs bring to the interaction is that they can role play, they can show abnormalities including assessments, they can understand what errors students make or errors patients make and then feedback to the students.

“The most important thing I want you to remember from what I’ve said is it’s sometimes good to take the clinician out of the room when the ACE is working. You do not want a clinician in there. If you have a clinician in with the ACE there, they’ll inevitably get into discussions about various pathologies and what a particular system does in terms of it’s function.

“The ACE is there to work as a tool to aid in the learning of the systems exams. We can do the theory at another session. Making full use of the ACE is vital and students’ feedback always shows they learn the examination processes quicker when the academic leaves the room!”

Click here to watch Professor Jim Parle talking about the value of using ACEs as simulated patients on the ACE National Conference 

Clinical Communication and History Taking – An Associate Clinical Educators Perspective

It’s always important for an ACE to understand the protocols health professionals must follow to help them take a good history from a patient. Once we understand this we are able to give hi-fidelity feedback to the Clinician and thus help them improve their ability to build rapport and gather information simultaneously.

Last week I had the pleasure of working with our partners at The University of Chester and The University of Wolverhampton Physician Associate Programmes.

At Chester University  we worked with 1st Year physician associates and at Wolverhampton we were working with 2nd year students. In both cases we were looking at how students communicate effectively with patients. What was apparent is the importance of quality feedback to the student.

For the students at Chester this was their first time looking at role-play, it was difficult convincing shy students to step up to the plate and hear their thoughts. It turns out that the ACE also has to be something of a motivator encouraging the students to take part. To get to grips with the scenario and to see that “roleplay” can be fun and educational, rather than scary and intimidating. It is this element of teaching that I particularly enjoy.

Wolverhampton however was very different, but still had its challenges. Although the students were more experienced with role-play and history taking, we still had a lot of work to do as the scenarios were far more challenging.

This week however, they had a reprieve from taking part in role-play.

I had been asked by the clinical lead Pete Gorman to deliver a session on communication theory and to talk about the practical challenges students face when talking to a difficult patient.

Whenever we communicate we interact both verbally and non-verbally, and understanding how we can make this work would take more than this short article. Here is a brief synopsis of what we discussed.

There are four legs to effective communication and these are:

  • Rapport
  • Behavioural Flexibility
  • Sensory Acuity
  • Knowing your Outcome

Rapport is key to successful communication. Indeed without rapport it is very difficult to influence anyone, whether that be to make behavioral change or to take a simple history. We have all had that experience with another person when we feel we just connect. We sometimes find ourselves engaged in a conversation with a stranger and feel that they are just like us. That is rapport. People deeply in love have rapport to the extent that they mirror each others’ posture, language and even breathing patterns. That is rapport.

Interacting With A Patient Whilst Performing A Systems Exam Is Crucial To Building And Maintaining Rapport
Interacting With A Patient Whilst Performing A Systems Exam Is Crucial To Building And Maintaining Rapport

In order to be effective in our communications with patients we must also be aware of the continuous process of feedback. It is important to know whether we are getting what we want from our communication. To do this effectively we must have sensory acuity. We notice  changes in physiology, breathing, eye accessing and language patterns. Armed with this information we can build rapport more authentically and deepen the relationship with the patient.

Once we have noticed these seemingly imperceptible cues, we can help the patient make better decisions and connect fully with the health professional. Using these tools will allow the clinician to help the patient to have a greater awareness of the choices available to them in the present, rather than have these choices restricted by past experiences and out-dated responses. This is what we sometimes call motivational interviewing.

Finally, everything you achieve is an outcome. If you are successful in your endeavours; that is an outcome. If you don’t succeed, that is still an outcome. Whatever we do results in an outcome. In order to achieve desirable outcomes we need to effectively model what works and then go out and do it! Rehearsal through role-play is the key to achieving positive outcomes when taking a history. You will always get what you ask for! Ask in the correct way and you will achieve your goal.

Whilst all of the above should be noted there are other important considerations that a clinician should be aware of in history taking.

I asked the students to remember the following when taking a history.

  • Presenting complaints – This is a list of the main symptoms or problems.
  • History of presenting complaint – This is an in-depth description the the presenting compliant.
  • Previous medical history – This is a comprehensive list of the all the illnesses, conditions and operation the patient has had in the past.
  • Drug history – A list of all of the patients medications and any allergies they may have.
  • Family history – Ask about conditions that run in the family.
  • Social history – This includes information about home, occupation, hobbies and habits. This would include smoking, drinking and illicit drug use.
  • Systems review – This a checklist of closed questions for every organ system in the body.

Using open and closed questions is an important skill. Closed questions at the start of a consultations encourage short yes and no type answers. Not good for building rapport in the opening stages of a meeting. Open questions encourage the patient to talk and that can be useful. Save the closed questions for gathering a quick response.

Engaging The Patient Both Verbally And Non Verbally Is Crucial For Building And Maintaining Rapport
Engaging The Patient Both Verbally And Non Verbally Is Crucial For Building And Maintaining Rapport

A common question I get from students is what factors hinder good communication? The list is extensive and I’ve seen and heard them all, but here are a few.

A badly worded introduction where you don’t clearly say your name. Not remembering the patients name, embarrassment, lack of curiosity, not asking the right types of questions, not making the right amount of eye contact, misreading body language, making assumptions, not listening actively, missing cues, not knowing how to deal with an answer, an over talkative patient, misunderstandings, making assumptions about the patient, stacking questions, judgemental behaviours. There are so many!

At the end of the session I gave students strategies to go away and practice. We always have opportunities every day to practice our communication skills. Unless you’re a hermit of course!

Check out the interactions between Mark and Bob on the video and if you are an actor interested in becoming a medical role-player and want to take it to the next level get in touch and join our growing ACE team. We will be posting dates for the next ACE training soon.