Open Access Open Badges Research article

Specialization training in Malawi: a qualitative study on the perspectives of medical students graduating from the University of Malawi College of Medicine

Adam P Sawatsky1, Natasha Parekh2, Adamson S Muula3* and Thuy Bui2

  • * Corresponding author: Adamson S Muula

  • † Equal contributors

Author Affiliations

1 Division of General Internal Medicine, Mayo Clinic, 200 First St. SW, Rochester, MN 55905, USA

2 Division of General Internal Medicine, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, UPMC Montefiore Hospital, Suite W933, 200 Lothrop Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15213, USA

3 Department of Community Health, College of Medicine, University of Malawi, P/B 360 Chichiri, Blantyre 3, Malawi

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BMC Medical Education 2014, 14:2  doi:10.1186/1472-6920-14-2

Published: 6 January 2014



There is a critical shortage of healthcare workers in sub-Saharan Africa, and Malawi has one of the lowest physician densities in the region. One of the reasons for this shortage is inadequate retention of medical school graduates, partly due to the desire for specialization training. The University of Malawi College of Medicine has developed specialty training programs, but medical school graduates continue to report a desire to leave the country for specialization training. To understand this desire, we studied medical students’ perspectives on specialization training in Malawi.


We conducted semi-structured interviews of medical students in the final year of their degree program. We developed an interview guide through an iterative process, and recorded and transcribed all interviews for analysis. Two independent coders coded the manuscripts and assessed inter-coder reliability, and the authors used an “editing approach” to qualitative analysis to identify and categorize themes relating to the research aim. The University of Pittsburgh Institutional Review Board and the University of Malawi College of Medicine Research and Ethics Committee approved this study and authors obtained written informed consent from all participants.


We interviewed 21 medical students. All students reported a desire for specialization training, with 12 (57%) students interested in specialties not currently offered in Malawi. Students discussed reasons for pursuing specialization training, impressions of specialization training in Malawi, reasons for staying or leaving Malawi to pursue specialization training and recommendations to improve training.


Graduating medical students in Malawi have mixed views of specialization training in their own country and still desire to leave Malawi to pursue further training. Training institutions in sub-Saharan Africa need to understand the needs of the country’s healthcare workforce and the needs of their graduating medical students to be able to match opportunities and retain graduating students.

Medical education; Postgraduate medical education; Specialization training; Medical migration; Sub-Saharan Africa; Qualitative research