Cate Nicholas, EdD, MS, PA
Vermont is a beautiful place. Home to quant little villages surrounded by rolling hills dotted with small dairy farms, and dense forests that produce brilliant foliage right around this time of year. People from all over the world come to Vermont to see the autumn spectacle.
Vermont is also home to one of the country’s most prominent simulationists and experts on the standardized patient methodologies, Doctor Cate Nicholas, EdD, MS, PA. Among her many accomplishment and accolades, Dr. Nicholas has now been named Reviewer of the Quarter by the Accreditation Council for the Society for Simulation in Healthcare. And while not a native of Vermont, she has made a home for herself and her family in Burlington and works for the University of Vermont and is the Director of Operations for the Fletcher Allen Health Care Clinical Simulation Laboratory.
Nicholas has extensive experience in clinical healthcare, working as a Physician’s Assistant for over 30 years, primarily in women’s health and reproductive health. Ironically, that wasn’t her original career plan, although her father helped move her toward the career she ended up choosing. “My first love was history, and I wanted to get a degree in history,” Cate explains. “But my dad, who was a child of the Depression and a very practical man, heard this and asked me where I thought I was going to get a job with a history degree. And I looked at him and said, well I have no idea!” So her father, who at that time worked at a medical facility on Long Island, New York (where Cate grew up) convinced her to look at a career in the world of healthcare. She finally decided on becoming a Medical Technician and received her Master’s Degree from University of Vermont in 1976. After graduation, she began working in a women’s health clinic in Burlington as a Medical Technician, and began to realize she wanted to be more directly involved in the care of the patient, and then spent two years in an apprenticeship to become a Physician’s Assistant. It was through this program that Cate had her first exposure to any sort of simulated activity. “During the apprenticeship course of study, we had a lot of one on one role playing with other students, learning assessment techniques and doing history interviews and such, and this was the early seeds for my understanding of what a Standardized Patient role was sort of like.”
During the first decade of her clinical career, she saw an ad in the paper from the University of Vermont’s Medical School for someone to help run the gynecological teaching associate program and she applied and got the job. “Within six months I was managing that program, and was then asked to help develop a more formalized approach to clinical skills assessment,” states Dr. Nicholas.We now know this as Objective Structured Clinical Exams (or OSCEs) with simulated Standardized Patients, but back then there wasn’t necessarily a name for it. “That was my first exposure to what I think is this fabulous community of practice (now known as simulation) that we all work in.” Like several other medical school programs across the United States at that time, the UV Medical School were compelled to implement new standards in their curricula that helped create a clinical skills program which was the forerunner to a fully integrated healthcare simulation facility that exists at the University now.
In the mid-2000s, Dr. Nicholas began attending the International Meeting for Simulation in Healthcare (IMSH), and started to realize that although the UV Medical School was very innovative with their Standardized Patient Program, they were not keeping up with where simulation-based education was going. “I felt like we were going to fall behind others when it came to other modalities of simulation that we were not doing. We were not going to be attractive to faculty, and we were going to have a hard time recruiting students and residents, if we did not adapt to what was coming.” And so with her leadership and the support of both the Medical School and the Colleges of Nursing and Health Sciences, Dr. Nicholas sought and received grant funding and state government support to create a facility that is now known as the Clinical Simulation Laboratory.
Since that time, Dr. Nicholas has gained state, regional, and national notoriety for her innovative education methods, practice and influence on both healthcare simulation as a whole, and in the realm of Standardized Patient methodology.She has worked extensively with the Association of Standardized Patient Educators including three years as the organization’s Vice President of Operations and is currently the Chair of the Grants and Research Committee. In 2011, she was named Outstanding Standardized Patient Educator of the Year by ASPE.
She has also been significantly involved in the Society for Simulation in Healthcare, including almost a decade as an accreditation site reviewer. She is currently on the Certification Council and is the Chair of the Quality Committee for the Council. Dr. Nicholas led her own program into SSH accreditation in 2014 in Research, Assessment, Systems Integration, and Teaching/Education. “I cannot speak more highly of the (SSH) accreditation process. Everyone has been so open-armed with their knowledge and time.”
“For these programs who have elected to go through the accreditation process, I just find it incredibly brave and generous. It’s brave to say here’s what we do and here’s how we do it. And it always amazes me to see the variety and creativity of all of these folks in these programs, and I just learn immensely from going on these site visits,” states Dr. Nicholas. She states that accreditation “allows a program to know what they are doing everyday can be validated and is of real quality.”
Outside of her incredibly busy career, Cate has a vast array of personal interests, including a passion for photography. “I am an avid, amateur photographer. I’ve taken a few classes, have had a couple of shows, and have actually sold a few pieces of my work.” When it was mentioned that selling her art actually makes her a professional, she just laughed, and said, “well I wouldn’t go that far!” Her family has a summer cottage and camp on Lake Champlain, and she spends much of her summer “communing with nature and just being.”
Cate has been married for 32 years and has three adult children, including a 26-year-old son, and twin 31-year old girls. In fact, one of her daughters is caring on the family legacy and is now a simulation educator in Portland, Oregon.Cate was eager and delighted to say that she is actually going to have the opportunity to present at IMSH with her daughter this year on the subject of Standardized Patient Education.
The SSH Accreditation Council and the Society in general would like to thank and congratulate Dr. Nicholas for her far-reaching influence and the for all the incredible and passionate work she has done in improving simulation-based healthcare education.