Communication a critical skill for healthcare students

Students across the health sciences including doctors, nurses and social workers viewed their key role to be healthcare practitioners and not communicators, raising questions about how they interacted with communities.

Addressing a workshop during the 9th Annual Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Conference held in Durban last week, representatives from various departments in the school of health sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, or UKZN, reflected on how communication skills were developed, the role advocacy played in the teaching and learning process, the importance of primary healthcare, and social accountability in the health science discipline.

Advocacy is the process of supporting and enabling people to express their views and concerns and defend and promote their rights and responsibilities.

UKZN school of clinical medicine head Dr Margaret Matthews said the communicator role was a key one within the healthcare space and communication was a critical competency for success.

However, while most disciplines taught “some form” of communication, most teaching was in line with writing referral notes, giving presentations and inter-professional associations, and not with the communities in which the practitioners would be operating.

“Most disciplines do not stress communication as a core competency and typically repeat what they had learnt. Lecturers believe students will not grasp the concepts of communication theory with only the MBChB programme incorporating the subject within its course curriculum,” she said.

UKZN family medicine head of department Dr Bernhard Gaede said primary healthcare was a “medicalised concept” central to the healthcare system. It placed medicine in the heart of the community and was typically the first point of contact between the patient and the profession.

However, it was challenging to change the primary healthcare curriculum beyond window dressing, as it was set by parameters outside the university’s control. There were also problems in community interaction in that communities were not involved in the teaching and learning process.

“Social accountability is not a choice, but an obligation to produce graduates able to meet the healthcare needs of a community,” said discipline of speech and language pathology lecturer Dr Penelope Flack.

Into that debate, she said, universities were shifting focus from social responsibilities to social responsiveness, essentially responding to social welfare requirements. However, there remained “very little” partnership or relationship with the communities in which they operated.

UKZN also had little understanding of who its reference population included – eThekwini (Durban) municipality residents, everyone living in KwaZulu-Natal province, the whole of South Africa or people living across the Southern African Development Community, given the increasing numbers of foreign students studying via the university?

“The role of universities is to be overtly responsible to community needs,” said the department of family medicine’s Dr Laura Campbell, having the final word.