Invading the Personal Bubble

When is the last time you let a stranger touch your belly? Unless you’re pregnant, I’d venture to guess that it’s not something that happens often. In fact, I suspect you wouldn’t voluntarily let someone burst your personal bubble in such a way unless you knew them very, very well or they had a good reason for doing so.

EMT Practice - Denise Medford (1)However, I know of a group of people who voluntarily allow medical students to invade their personal bubbles by allowing us to practice our examination skills on them. Known as standardized patients, these men and women portray fictional patient cases — complete with medical history and realistic symptoms. Their work is a gift to medical students and integral to our preparation for future clinical work with real patients.

Each week we work with these standardized patients to learn portions of the physical exam. For instance, last week we learned how to do an abdominal exam. To the person who allowed my group to practice palpating and percussing his belly repeatedly, I am immensely grateful. These skills are difficult to learn without this type of hands-on experience. I am humbled by the trust and patience our standardized patients show us.

Part of becoming a physician involves learning how to invade the personal bubble on a regular basis. More than just learning how to think and solve medical problems, medical school involves learning how to perform many skills that involve all of the senses. While I appreciated this fact intellectually before entering medical school, I don’t think I fully appreciated what it really takes to learn these tactile skills. Although we can practice on mannequins and simulators ad nauseum, there is no substitute for practicing our skills with real people.

Being able to use the clinical skills area of the medical school to practice with standardized patients gives us the tools to enter third-year rotations armed with lots of experience, making us better able to efficiently and effectively serve our patients. Without the patience and commitment of our standardized patients, we wouldn’t have this opportunity. Through these encounters I am already realizing the great trust that others have in us by allowing us to invade their personal space for the sake of our learning. Truly, that is a gift that I can only hope to pay forward in the way that I care for my future patients.

Interested in becoming a standardized patient or want to learn more about the program? Visit for more information.



Rachel Donaldson

Rachel Nelson

I’m originally from Brentwood, Tennessee, and I came to South Carolina to attend college at Furman University where I was a music major, outdoor enthusiast and lover of life. I never expected to spend four more years here in Greenville, but I could not be more excited to have the opportunity to stay and be a part of this incredible program at the USC School of Medicine in Greenville! I hope that through this blog you will be able to see, as I did, a glimpse of the inspiring vision and stunning reality of this medical school, and that you will share in our innovative and hands-on journey to becoming tomorrow’s doctors.

Abby Edwards