The bottom line: Tailoring a public health elective to students’ needs

  • JE Wolvaardt
  • V Burch
  • DC Cameron
  • PH du Toit


Context and setting. Academics face difficulties when trying to include public health in the medical curriculum. The first hurdle is an already
overloaded curriculum and the second the marginal interest in the healthy on the part of those who are mainly concerned with the ill. One overlooked
potential opportunity for inclusion in the curriculum is the elective and, in particular, the self-constructed elective of third-year medical students at
the University of Pretoria.
Why the idea was necessary. Not only does public health have to compete with the powerful clinical interests among students, but students are also
not in a position to identify opportunities in the community that could offer meaningful learning opportunities for an elective in public health.
What was done. An action research study design used an online survey to explore the factors that students take into account when constructing an
elective experience. These factors determined the final design of a public health elective which was subsequently advertised to third-year medical
students at the University of Pretoria as a possible option.
Results and impact. Disappointingly, no student enrolled for the elective. Subsequent investigation of students’ actual choices resulted in a deeper
understanding of students’ unvoiced needs. It would appear that a successful public health elective needs to be like a mini-skirt - long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to hold interest. Academics considering innovations in public health could benefit from this complexity in design.

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