Critical Orientations for Humanising Health Sciences Education in South Africa

by Berna Gerber, Michelle Pentecost, Megan Wainwright and Thomas Cousins

In this article the authors argue that the curricula of health professions degree programmes in South Africa should be ‘humanised’ and ‘decolonised’. Curricular integration is used as the guiding framework. With the term integration we are referring to education that is based on a single and cohesive conceptual framework that includes and values both the biomedical sciences (such as anatomy and microbiology) and the humanities, arts and social sciences (such as philosophy, anthropology and literature), since all of these are needed in the practice of health care. An integrated curriculum is very different from a traditional (essentially biomedical) health sciences curriculum with a few courses from the humanities ‘added on’ or offered as electives. We propose four themes to include (and integrate) in health professions education, in order to arrive at humanised and decolonised curricula.

First we discuss the importance of a pedagogy that challenges knowledge hierarchies. In the health sciences, and medicine in particular, there remains an unchallenged idea that only scientific, quantitative methods can produce the trusted evidence that health professionals need to exercise their professions. We argue, as others do, that a transformed curriculum will be one that integrates different kinds of questions about health and illness that require different kinds of methods to understand. Secondly we pay attention to the image of the health professional. We argue that health professions students should be taught from the beginning of their careers that they are not simply scientists, but rather science-using healers, who need different forms of knowledge and methods of thinking. Third, we argue that health sciences students need to learn about the social histories of the places in which they work, and to work towards social justice for all. Fourth, we argue that clinicians should be taught to value relationship as the primary means by which healing can take place: to learn to listen and engage with their patients.

The article starts with a short historical overview of challenges in the education of health and health professionals in South Africa since 1994, when the country became a democratic state after fifty years of Apartheid. We also discuss what has happened more recently in health professions education and in the field of medical and health humanities in South Africa. We then provide some examples from South Africa to illustrate how the four critical themes might be applied in practice, to educate health professionals who are well-prepared to address the current health care needs of the country.

Listen to the authors discuss their article in the soundbite below:

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