About the Author(s)

Dawie Du Plessis
Division of Family Medicine and Primary Care, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa

Paul Alfred Kapp
Division of Family Medicine and Primary Care, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa

Knysna and Bitou sub-districts, Western Cape, South Africa

Louis S. Jenkins Email
Division of Family Medicine and Primary Care, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa

Family Medicine, George Hospital, Eden District, Western Cape, South Africa

Laurel Giddy
Division of Family Medicine and Primary Care, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa

Knysna and Bitou sub-districts, Western Cape, South Africa


Du Plessis D, Kapp PA, Jenkins LS, Giddy L. Postgraduate training for family medicine in a rural district hospital in South Africa: Appropriateness and sufficiency of theatre procedures as a sentinel indicator. Afr J Prm Health Care Fam Med. 2016;8(1), a1106. http://dx.doi.org/10.4102/phcfm.v8i1.1106

Scientific Letters

Postgraduate training for family medicine in a rural district hospital in South Africa: Appropriateness and sufficiency of theatre procedures as a sentinel indicator

Dawie Du Plessis, Paul Alfred Kapp, Louis S. Jenkins, Laurel Giddy

Received: 25 Nov. 2015; Accepted: 21 Mar. 2016; Published: 30 June 2016

Copyright: © 2016. The Author(s). Licensee: AOSIS.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Background: Since 2007, the postgraduate training of family physicians for South African district hospitals has been formalised. This training differs from European and North American programmes as up to 30% of the skills needed rely on district hospital surgical, obstetrics and anaesthetics procedures, particularly in rural areas, as outlined in the national unit standards. The aim of this study was to evaluate the appropriateness and sufficiency of learning opportunities for these skills in a rural district hospital.

Methods: A descriptive, cross-sectional study was undertaken of the number and type of procedures performed in theatre for a 1-year period and compared with the required procedural skills stipulated in the national unit standards. Descriptive statistical analyses were used to analyse categorical data.

Results: Three thousand seven hundred and forty-one procedures were performed during the study period. Anaesthesia was the most common procedure, followed by Caesarean section. There were adequate opportunities for teaching most core skills.

Conclusions: Sufficient and appropriate learning opportunities exist for postgraduate family medicine training in all the core skills performed in a theatre according to the national unit standards.


Since the recognition of family medicine as a speciality by the Colleges of Medicine of South Africa and the Health Professions Council of South Africa in 2007, national core competencies and minimum skills levels for the discipline have been established.1 This is in keeping with international norms to ensure uniformity in the training and expected competencies of specialist family physicians.2,3

The objectives of postgraduate family medicine training have been well described, namely that ‘There is to be a compulsory, full-time four-year training programme for registrars in Family Medicine which should result in a well-trained cohort of Family Physicians suitable to staff Community Health Centres (CHC) and Primary Care Hospitals in the future’.4

As early as 1987, it was identified that healthcare in Africa required the training of a ‘district hospital doctor’ who has a wide range of procedural skills.5 More recently, in the local context, there have been extensive reports on the skills and knowledge requirements of doctors who work in district hospitals in the Western Cape.6,7,8

The South African National Department of Health published the expected package of care required for a district hospital in a 2002 policy document. This was supplemented in 2009 by the Western Cape District Package of Care.9,10 The required skills in the national and provincial district packages of care are similar to the skills and competencies expected of a family physician.1

Family physicians and medical officers (MOs) in district hospitals need to be competent in a range of surgical and anaesthetic procedures, and there is a need for ongoing training.5,6,7,8 Initially, the postgraduate training programme offered by Stellenbosch University (SU) had a 2-year period of rotations through the major disciplines in a regional hospital, with training largely supervised by consultants from outside the speciality of family medicine and 2 years spent in a district hospital and CHCs. More recently, there has been a shift towards offering most of the training at the district hospital and CHCs (3–4 years), with focussed exposures in level 2 facilities should the need arise (0–1 year).11 Family medicine educators in South Africa consider it imperative ‘That training would take place in CHC, Level 1 (district or primary care orientated) hospitals and where necessary, in Level 2 (regional hospitals)’.4 Postgraduate training within the primary care context ‘provides opportunity for the registrar to gain experience in community-oriented primary care, ambulatory care, the care of families, continuity of care, and promotive, preventive and rehabilitative health care’.12

Knysna District hospital is a 96-bed provincial hospital situated in the Eden District of the Western Cape Province of South Africa. It provides comprehensive hospital- and clinic-based primary care services to a population of roughly 120 000 people who reside within its drainage area.13,14 The doctors who provide the service are led by two family physicians and comprise a mixture of MOs of varying experience and community service MOs. Some surgical services that are appropriate to level 2 and level 3 care are performed by outreaching specialists in their respective fields. The hospital is a sought-after training site among family medicine registrars and has a 100% pass rate including two cum laude students. Currently, there are three registrar posts for postgraduate family medicine training at the hospital. The aim of this study was to evaluate the appropriateness and sufficiency of learning opportunities for the nationally expected skills in surgery, obstetrics and anaesthetics in a rural district hospital, particularly Knysna hospital.


The study was done in the theatres in Knysna District hospital in the Eden District of the Western Cape Province of South Africa. All surgical and anaesthetic procedures done between 1 February 2011 and 31 January 2012 were recorded from the entries made into the theatre record. The study was designed for a 12-month period in order to incorporate any seasonal changes and other factors to try to ensure that it will be representative. When counting the procedures, every subentry was counted as a procedure. For instance, a Caesarean section and tubal ligation was counted as three procedures: Anaesthetic (spinal/general), Caesarean section and Tubal ligation. Data were recorded in an Excel 2007™ spreadsheet. Skills and procedures were used as interchangeable terms, conveying similar meaning. Opportunities for teaching family medicine registrars procedural skills were identified and compared with the national skills list for family medicine training. Each procedure was counted and tabulated according to the experience level of the doctor who performed the procedure. Doctors with a minimum of 5 years’ experience or a specialist qualification were identified as teachers and all procedures performed by a teacher were categorised as a learning opportunity. Five years’ experience was decided on as an arbitrary level of experience in order to ensure that the teacher would have sufficient experience to enable skills transfer.

Every procedure on the skills list that was done in theatre was tabulated. The national skills list differentiates procedures as either core, supervised or elective skills and the same definitions were used in this study (see Table 1).1

TABLE 1: Definitions as encompassed in the agreed national skills list.

The literature suggests that a skill needs to be performed 15–25 times by a trainee in order to obtain proficiency.15,16,17,18 A value of 20 was used for the purpose of this study. Given the 4-year duration of the family medicine training programme, all procedures that occurred as learning opportunities five times during the year under review were regarded as adequate to enable the training of one registrar to become proficient in 4 years provided the registrar is given priority in accessing the learning opportunity. Some of the procedures performed were not applicable to family medicine training and were excluded.

All procedures performed outside the theatre in the wards, out-patient department (OPD) or emergency centre (EC) were excluded. The study focused only on the availability of learning opportunities and made no attempt to determine whether these opportunities were utilised.

Ethical considerations

Ethical approval for the research was obtained from the Health Research Ethics Committee at SU (S13/07/128) and permission to use the heath facility for research from the Western Cape Department of Health.


A total of 3741 surgical, obstetrics and anaesthetic procedures were done. Of these, 3737 were identifiable and 4 were unknown or illegible in the theatre record. One hundred and twenty-six different procedures were recorded with the frequency varying from 1 to 1202 per year. The different procedures are listed according to their classification as either core, supervised or elective skills (see Appendix 1, 2 and 3, Figure 1 and Tables 2, 3 and 4).

FIGURE 1: Core procedures performed in theatre.

TABLE 2: Core skills.
TABLE 3: Supervised skills.
TABLE 4: Elective skills.


A wide spectrum of procedures (126) was performed during the study period. General anaesthesia was the procedure performed most often (1202 times). This was expected because most other procedures would need anaesthesia in order to make their performance possible. Of the surgical procedures, obstetric and gynaecological procedures dominated. Some of the procedures performed occurred frequently and presented high volumes of learning opportunities so that proficiency can be taught within 1 year. These relatively common procedures were mostly those procedures designated for district (level 1) facilities, for example, general anaesthetics and Caesarean sections.

Of the 47 procedures considered core skills that were done in theatre, 34 (72%) could also be done in the wards, OPD or the EC. This interchangeability of the core skills between theatre and elsewhere illustrates the flexibility required of family physicians. This is congruent with the African understanding that family physicians must be competent to work in both the ambulatory primary care as well as the district hospital environment.19 Twenty-nine of the 47 procedures occurred often enough as learning opportunities in theatre to enable training of registrars, depending on the work schedules and after-hours call rosters of the registrars. One skill, checking a Boyle’s machine, was not counted and could not be commented on, although it was assumed to be performed at least on a daily basis. Seventeen core procedures that were performed both in theatre and other procedure rooms were not performed often enough in theatre to be classified as sufficient learning opportunities. There was a lack of data with regards to how often these procedures were done outside theatre and fell outside the scope of this research.

There were 18 supervised skills that happened in theatre. The definition of supervised skills is ambiguous concerning the level of proficiency and independence the registrar should display in performing the procedure. If the requirement is for the registrar to only perform the procedure once with expert guidance, as the definition suggests, a single learning opportunity would suffice and the number of procedures that had adequate learning opportunities will increase. We intended to explore to what extent registrars can be taught proficiency; therefore, we have not altered our definition of adequate learning opportunities. During the year in review, 5 of the 18 procedures potentially had sufficient learning opportunities to enable registrars to become proficient in a 4-year training period. Of the remaining 13 procedures, 6 were exclusive to theatre but did not occur often enough for a registrar to become proficient to perform the procedure independently. Seven of the procedures could be performed in theatre or elsewhere. It is acknowledged that these potential learning opportunities would depend on the availability of registrars, the number of registrars at any one time in the hospital and other system factors such as staff leave, equipment and patient dynamics.

Elective skills, by definition, are skills that a registrar chooses to learn for personal reasons or because there is a local need for a skill. If a procedure is repeated often enough to enable training, there is presumably a need for that skill in the local context. The availability of sufficient learning opportunities can therefore be used to inform a decision about learning a skill.


This study quantified learning opportunities inside theatre and excluded procedures done outside theatre. Therefore, it was not possible to comment on the hospital as a whole for postgraduate training opportunities. However, focusing on theatre allowed for detailed and accurate data analysis, serving as a sentinel indicator for the rest of the hospital.


The aim of this study was to evaluate the appropriateness and sufficiency of learning opportunities for the nationally expected skills in surgery, obstetrics and anaesthetics in a rural district hospital, particularly Knysna hospital theatres. This small, rural district hospital provided adequate training opportunities for most of the core procedural skills expected for postgraduate family medicine training in South Africa. Most of the procedures considered supervised skills did not occur often enough to enable training. Elective skills that are directed by local service needs can be taught adequately. These results suggest that district hospitals in similar settings in South Africa are adequate for postgraduate family medicine training.


Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no financial or personal relationships which may have inappropriately influenced them in writing this article.

Authors’ contributions

D.d.P. conceptualised the study, wrote the protocol, collected the data and wrote the first draft. P.K. directly supervised the study, assisted with the conceptualisation and helped with the data collection and analysis and the final write-up. L.J. co-supervised the study, including the initial conceptualisation, data analysis and writing up of the study for publication. L.G. offered assistance with the conceptualisation and final article.


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Appendix 1

Appendix 2

Appendix 3


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