Education and training of undergraduate health science students in public health are insufficient in many parts of the world. This lack is a risk as early interest in specialist training options is a predictor of future training choices. A special interest group (SIG) is one mechanism to engage students, increase awareness and generate interest in public health. The purpose of this case study was to create and study such a group at an African university.
An action research study design was used to create and study the SIG. All interested students were invited to participate in the SIG and in the data collection procedures. Data were collected via paper-based and online questionnaires. Records of activities were documented, and a reflective diary was kept by the researcher. Seven SIG meetings were held which were less than planned—some sessions were cancelled due to general student unrest. The composition of the SIG fluctuated, but the core group of 16 students consisted of 12 females (75%) and 4 males (25%). Despite faculty-wide marketing, all the participants were medical students. The most successful marketing strategy was done by two lecturers. A total of 12 participants’ motivation (75%) was to learn more about public health. Despite the range of participants being over 4-year groups with varying schedules and commitments, a convenient day and meeting time were identified. The social capital of lecturers was harnessed to invite external guest lecturers as planned field trips proved impractical. At the mid-year point, six students (38%) thought that they would consider public health as a career choice. A decision was made to recruit new members via a seminar, and 37 possible new members were identified in the process.
A SIG appears to be an effective strategy to increase public health interest among students. This finding is key in settings with particular health workforce shortages and high burdens of disease. A foundation phase with high levels of academic support by those already qualified is needed to allow student leadership to emerge. Despite the modified and reduced number of sessions, the SIG was still successful in increasing awareness about public health and possible career choices: both positive consequences of engaging with students within a SIG.