Open Access Research article

Reflections of students graduating from a transforming medical curriculum in South Africa: a qualitative study

Lionel Patrick Green-Thompson, Patricia McInerney*, Dianne Mary Manning, Ntsiki Mapukata-Sondzaba, Shalote Chipamaunga and Tlangelani Maswanganyi

Author Affiliations

Centre for Health Science Education, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, 7 York Rd, Parktown, Johannesburg, 2193, South Africa

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BMC Medical Education 2012, 12:49  doi:10.1186/1472-6920-12-49

Published: 28 June 2012



The six year medical programme at the University of the Witwatersrand admits students into the programme through two routes – school entrants and graduate entrants. Graduates join the school entrants in the third year of study in a transformed curriculum called the Graduate Entry Medical Programme (GEMP). In years I and 2 of the GEMP, the curriculum is structured into system based blocks. Problem-based learning, using a three session format, is applied in these two years. The curriculum adopts a biopsychosocial approach to health care, which is implemented through spiral teaching and learning in four main themes – basic and clinical sciences, patient-doctor, community- doctor and personal and professional development. In 2010 this programme produced its fifth cohort of graduates.


We undertook a qualitative, descriptive and contextual study to explore the graduating students’ perceptions of the programme. Interviews were conducted with a total of 35 participants who volunteered to participate in the study. The majority of the participants interviewed participated in focus group discussions. The interviews were transcribed verbatim and analysed thematically, using Tesch’s eight steps. Ethics approval for the study was obtained from the Human Research Ethics Committee of the University of the Witwatersrand. Participants provided written consent to participate in the interviews and for the interviews to be audio-taped.


Six themes were identified. These were: two separate programmes, problem-based learning and Garmins® (navigation system), see patients for real, being seen as doctors, assessment: of mice and MCQ’s, a cry for support and personal growth and pride. Participants were vocal in their reflections of experiences encountered during the programme and made several insightful suggestions for curriculum transformation. The findings suggest that graduates are exiting the programme confident and ready to begin their internships.


The findings of this study have identified a number of areas which need attention in the curriculum. Specifically attention needs to be given to ensuring that assessment is standardized; student support structures and appropriate levels of teaching. The study demonstrated the value of qualitative methods in obtaining students’ perceptions of a curriculum.