The great pretenders helping medical students become future north Queensland doctors

Richard Dinnen - Queensland Editor |

Lance Laverty has been perfecting his fake vomit recipe for many years in his quest to be a convincing pretender, one of the dedicated volunteers helping to train new north Queensland doctors.

Lance is one of more than 150 volunteer simulated patients (VSPs) helping medical students at James Cook University (JCU) learn to be doctors.

JCU College of Medicine and Dentistry Academic Lead, Nikki Harvey, said the volunteers have a vital role teaching students clinical and personal skills.

Professor Nikki Harvey

“The students interview the volunteers, asking about symptoms or taking medical history. Or we might ask a volunteer to play a specific role, working from a script.

“It could be someone who presents with chest pain, or abdominal pain. And this is a really helpful way for our students to develop clinical reasoning and critical thinking.

“They’re asked to try to determine the cause of that person’s complaint from what they’re saying from their script. They’ll have very specific symptoms and a history to tell the student. It’s a really good learning opportunity.”

It’s also a chance for the volunteers to put their imaginations, theatrical talents, and life experience to work for a good cause.

Lance is not about to disclose his fake vomit formula, which may include peaches and corn, but he says realism is important.

“I’ve been involved at the hospital for many years, and I know what it can be like. Making things visual and interactive prepares students for what could actually happen when they become doctors.

“My favourite thing is coming here and helping the kids, that’s what it’s all about for me.

“It’s great when you get to see former students you met through the program working at the hospital as interns. You see the benefit, the fruits you’re helping to grow.”

Fellow volunteer, Ivor, said being a VSP is a real honour.

“It’s such a tremendous privilege to be part of a medical student’s journey. You really get the sense you are very highly respected.

“You’re treated like a VIP, you can feel you’re contributing to something important. And it’s a therapy for retirees.”

Third-year medical student, Finley Prentis, said the volunteers help him learn clinical skills and how to connect with patients.

“They’re very encouraging, they’re very relaxed. Sometimes they’ll crack a joke just so you’re a bit more comfortable and it just helps you practise real-world clinical skills.”

VSPs can help medical students learn how to talk with patients, or how to conduct physical examinations and diagnostic procedures.

There’s also the opportunity for volunteers to do paid work with medical students as “pretend” patients during end of year clinical exams.

Volunteers work with JCU students in Cairns and Townsville, with the program about to be expanded to the Mackay campus.

Associate Professor Harvey said the University values its dedicated volunteers and is always ready to welcome more.

“They’re from all different backgrounds and walks of life. If you’re community-minded, this is a very rewarding thing, helping to educate future doctors for this north Queensland region.

“And many of them say they really enjoy the social aspect, meeting new people, getting out of the house.

“It’s an opportunity to learn. Some of our volunteers have been with us a long time, and their knowledge is amazing.

“Some of the students say ‘it was so good, the volunteer helped me to know where I should palpate or prompted me to know what I should be asking’.

“They definitely learn a lot through the role, and I think they really enjoy that.”

For more information about becoming a volunteer simulated patient, visit the JCU College of Medicine and Dentistry website  

Volunteers and JCU staff at a thank you function in Cairns