By J E Doherty and I Couper. South Africa Corresponding author: J E Doherty (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Background. This article published in the SAMJ, May 2016, derives lessons from international experience of innovative rural health placements for medical students. It provides pointers for strengthening South African undergraduate rural health programmes in support of the government’s rural health, primary healthcare and National Health Insurance strategies.
Methods. The article draws on a review of the literature on 39 training programmes around the world, and the experiential knowledge of 28 local and international experts consulted through a structured workshop.
Results. There is a range of models for rural health placements: some offer only limited exposure to rural settings, while others offer immersion experiences to students. Factors facilitating successful rural health placements include faculty champions who drive rural programmes and persuade faculties to embrace a rural mission, preferential selection of students with a rural background, positioning rural placements within a broader rural curriculum, creating rural training centres, the active nurturing of rural service staff, assigning students to mentors, the involvement of communities, and adapting rural programmes to the local context. Common obstacles include difficulties with student selection, negative social attitudes towards rural health, shortages of teaching staff, a sense of isolation experienced by rural students and staff, and difficulties with programme evaluation.
Conclusions. Faculties seeking to expand rural placements should locate their vision within new health system developments, start off small and create voluntary rural tracks, apply preferential admission for rural students, set up a rural training centre, find practical ways of working with communities, and evaluate the educational and clinical achievements of rural health placements.