Background: Simulated patients are used with increased frequency for medical students and residents, but have not been used very often with practicing physicians. We hypothesized that educational materials could improve primary care physicians sexual practices history taking and counseling as assessed by a simulated patient in the physician's office.
Methods: Simulated patient (SP) visits were made to 232 (75% of eligible) primary care physicians. The patient simulated was a sexually active young woman with vaginitis and sexually transmitted disease/human immunodeficiency virus risk behaviors. In advance of the visit, physicians were provided educational materials (monograph, pamphlet, and audiotape) developed for the study, including a risk assessment questionnaire that could be used with patients.
Results: Most physicians randomly allocated to the intervention participated. Twenty-one percent of physicians refused to schedule an SP visit. Physicians who received an SP rated the experience highly. Physicians who prepared for the visit with the educational materials performed significantly better than those who did not. About two thirds of physicians reviewed the materials, many for the second time, after the SP visit. Physicians who used the study risk assessment questionnaire performed better. Many physicians (24.9% to 39.8%) did not meet each of the four goals for the visit, as assessed subjectively by the SP. Physician performance was better for measures of general patient interaction than for measures of sexual practices history taking and counseling techniques.
Conclusion: The SP visit was acceptable to most physicians practicing in a community and was evaluated by them as an appealing and an effective educational experience. The SP, however, has limited feasibility because of cost. The SP led to review of materials by nearly all physicians either before or after the visit. Physicians who prepared before the visit performed better on every dimension, eliciting more information, displaying better patient interaction skills, and meeting more of the educational goals. Even with educational preparation, however, many physicians were not perceived as being effective counselors.