Building public health capacity through short courses: a new guide
In 1992, the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in South Africa conducted its first public health Winter School. Drawing on 26 years of experience with running these annual short course programmes, we just launched a publication that aims to share insights and provide guidance for institutions interested in or already running similar continuing education short course programmes in public health or related areas.
Why continuing education through short courses in public health?
Short courses provide an opportunity for health professionals to be exposed to new ideas and thinking in the field, to learn specific skills and to engage with peers without the need for extended absences from work. They also provide a breathing and thinking space away from usually quite high-pressured and stressful work environments.
We started our own short course programme for public health professionals at UWC in 1992 – at a time when we in South Africa were negotiating the terms for holding our first democratic election in 1994. It was a time of transformation in the health sector – when a district health system with a primary health care orientation needed to be built from scratch from the ruins of the highly fragmented and inequitable health system operated by the apartheid regime.
We wanted to contribute to ensuring that there would be equity, efficiency and sustainability in our health system; and in the first decade of our democracy, we understood our brief to be to contribute to promoting access to health care generally and primary health care in particular. Since inception, the main purpose of the Winter Schools has been to:
"expose health and health-related workers to the latest thinking in public health and enable them to discuss and exchange ideas on improved planning and implementation of primary health care in the changing environment of the developing world".
In aiming to equip and influence some of the major actors in the health sector, particularly the new and large layer of mid-level managers in the district health system, the idea was (and still is) to contribute to promoting health equity and social justice. Winter School courses are therefore open to actors in the broader health system who would like to undertake stand-alone short courses as part of their professional development, thereby providing opportunities to gain additional skills in current public health issues and practice.
As such, the short courses also showcase the university and the School of Public Health's postgraduate programme. Indeed, many of our postgraduate students from both South Africa and the African continent more broadly hear about us, and get to know us, through attendance at one of the short courses. In addition, these short courses provide contact time for our postgraduate students.
Initially held twice a year, and now once a year (every June/July when university students are on vacation), the Winter School consists of a three-week programme comprising 18 to 25 courses, most a week long. Through this programme, between 250 and 500 health and health-related workers are exposed to the latest thinking in public health each year, enabling them to discuss and exchange ideas on improved planning and implementation of primary health care, district health systems and health equity. To date, more than 10 000 health care practitioners and managers from all over South Africa and many other African countries have attended at least one, and often many, short courses.
Why this guide?
In the past few years we have often been asked by colleagues in schools of public health and similar institutions, both in South Africa and other parts of the Africcan continent, what it takes to set up and continue running such a large and sustained programme in an academic institution; why does interest not wane; and how do we manage the focus, substance and logistics of this programme?
This guide endeavours to respond to these questions - to assist those university colleagues who are considering the development of similar continuing professional development programmes in the health and related social sectors, both in South Africa and further afield.
What is in the guide?
This guide comprises seven chapters:
|It provides a history of the programme through the eyes of some of the colleagues who initiated it and were involved from inception.|
Chapter 1: Background: History of the UWC School of Public Health’s professional development programme
Chapter 2: Contexts, interests and needs
|It opens the door to the ‘engine room’ and logistics of the programme, from advertising and marketing to organising teaching venues and materials, and managing accreditation.|
Chapter 3: Resources
Chapter 4: Administration and logistics
|It offers insight into our approaches to choosing topics, developing curricula and how we work with adult learners.|
Chapter 5: Designing the curriculum and programme
Chapter 6: Facilitating adult learning
|It identifies the issues you might consider and the decisions you will need to take when offering a professional development programme through short courses.|
Chapter 7: Checklists: Assessing feasibility and designing your short course programme
The guide does not aim to provide a blueprint, as continuing education programmes inevitably have to fit into and respond to specific contexts. Rather it raises the key themes, questions and issues to consider when planning such a programme – enriched with reflections from staff and participants about our programme at the School of Public Health at UWC.
While the guide focuses on public health, many of the themes are generic to continuing professional development programmes in the public sector and can be used and/or adapted for other fields.
When developing your own programmes using this guide, we ask that you acknowledge this original source and that you share your adaptations with us in the interest of refining and developing this as a useful resource for all. Feedback about your own experiences can be sent to the e-mail address provided at the bottom of page vi of the guide.
The guide is available from the website of the UWC School of Public Health.
Uta Lehmann, School of Public Health, University of the Western Cape, and Penny Morrell, independent consultant working with the SOPH on this guide.