In her own way, Sue Ahearn runs a theater group. But she’ll never make it on Broadway. Her actors don’t recite Shakespeare. Instead, they cough with the flu, moan with a bad headache, double over with stomach pain or act out any of a dozen other ailments doctors treat regularly.

Ahearn directs the Clinical Skills Center in the UC Irvine School of Medicine. At its heart is the standardized patient program, where UCI doctors cast actors in patient roles based on real cases. By playing their parts well, these actors help doctors- and nurses-in-training learn to diagnose and interact with patients.

“UCI has been on the forefront of this sophisticated method of medical education,” Ahearn says. “The advantage is that students can gain hands-on experience in a safe environment that allows for follow-up evaluation.”

Ahearn was a nurse at UC Irvine Medical Center for 12 years before joining the Clinical Skills Center in 1994 when it was a pilot program. Since then, the School of Medicine has led nationally in standardized patient training, and Ahearn has worked with the National Board of Medical Examiners to develop the innovative method of education.

Tapped as center director two years ago, one of her challenges is finding people to serve as standardized patients, especially Spanish speakers. Many are actors who supplement their incomes by working for Ahearn a few hours each month.

Medical students meet these standardized patients in small groups, where they take vital histories and do the physical examinations key to a medical practice. Physician-teachers lead the sessions, which are filmed for further evaluation.

“Our students are enormously motivated to make a difference,” Ahearn says. “Each day with them is very stimulating, and they enjoy working with the standardized patients. The work is constantly challenging, but it is great fun.

The program needs more men ages 35-50 to serve as standardized patients. For information, call 949-824-6150, or e-mail