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Open Access Research article

Learning health professionalism at Makerere University: an exploratory study amongst undergraduate students

Rhona K Baingana1*, Noeline Nakasujja1, Moses Galukande1, Kenneth Omona2, David K Mafigiri3 and Nelson K Sewankambo1

Author Affiliations

1 College of Health Sciences, Makerere University, P. O. Box 7072, Kampala, Uganda

2 Lira Regional Referral Hospital, P. O. Box 2, Lira, Uganda

3 Faculty of Social Sciences, Makerere University, P. O. Box 7062, Kampala, Uganda

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BMC Medical Education 2010, 10:76  doi:10.1186/1472-6920-10-76

Published: 4 November 2010

Abstract

Background

Anecdotal evidence shows that unprofessional conduct is becoming a common occurrence amongst health workers in Uganda. The development of appropriate professional values, attitudes and behaviors is a continuum that starts when a student joins a health professional training institution and as such health professionals in training need to be exposed to the essence of professionalism. We sought to explore undergraduate health professions students' perceptions and experiences of learning professionalism as a preliminary step in addressing the problem of unprofessional conduct amongst health workers in Uganda.

Methods

Eight focus group discussions were conducted with 49 first to fifth year health professions undergraduate students of the 2008/2009 academic year at Makerere University College of Health Sciences. The focus group discussions were recorded and transcribed, and were analyzed using content analysis with emergent coding.

Results

The difference in the way first and fifth year students of Makerere University College of Health Sciences conceptualized professionalism was suggestive of the decline in attitude that occurs during medical education. The formal curriculum was described as being inadequate while the hidden and informal curricula were found to play a critical role in learning professionalism. Students identified role models as being essential to the development of professionalism and emphasized the need for appropriate role modeling. In our setting, resource constraints present an important, additional challenge to learning universal standards of health professionalism. Furthermore, students described practices that reflect the cultural concept of communalism, which conflicts with the universally accepted standard of individual medical confidentiality. The students questioned the universal applicability of internationally accepted standards of professionalism.

Conclusions

The findings call for a review of the formal professionalism curriculum at Makerere University College of Health Sciences to make it more comprehensive and to meet the needs expressed by the students. Role models need capacity building in professionalism as health professionals and as educators. In our setting, resource constraints present an additional challenge to learning universal standards of health professionalism. There is need for further research and discourse on education in health professionalism in the Sub-Saharan context of resource constraints and cultural challenges.