Investing in health professions education: A national development imperative for South Africa


Background: Human resources for health are an essential component of any health system. South Africa’s National Development Plan identifies the need for a strengthened public health system and improvements in the quality of education and service delivery. While efforts to increase the number of trained health personnel are acknowledged, a lack of sustainable investment in improving the quality of health professions education in South Africa may have detrimental consequences for these national ideals. Discussion: South Africa’s economic growth has declined in recent years, placing pressure on its fiscal capacity and the ability of academic institutions to fund critical aspects relating to training needs within health professions education programmes. Increased intakes at universities have not been supported by concurrent increases in funding required to support evolving training needs. Reduced financial support for health professions education programs has implications for required resource capacity, and will potentially negatively impact the quality, as well as global competitiveness, of health professions training programmes in South Africa. Funding gaps which impact the quality of training also ultimately affect the quality of health services delivered by the health system in the long term. Conclusion: Political will in support of more sustainable funding mechanisms for ongoing investment into health professions education programs and their evolving training needs is required in order for South Africa to meet its development objectives as outlined in the National Development Plan and its National Health Insurance policy.      

Author Biography

D. van Staden, University of KwaZulu Natal
Dr Diane van Staden is the Academic Leader of the Discipline of Optometry at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal and holds a DRILL Postdoctoral Fellowship. School of Health Sciences


Anyangwe, S., and C. Mtonga. 2007. “Inequities in the Global Health Workforce: The Greatest Impediment to Health in Sub-Saharan Africa.†International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 4(2) (June): 93‒100.

Ayo-Yusuf, L. 2015. South Africa needs a new way to address the doctor shortage. Online: The Conversation.

Batia, T. 2016. “A ‘health system’ perspective on scaling up hospital cataract services.†Community Eye Health 28(91): 56.

Barnes, A. J., R. S. Bono, A. D. Kimmel and S. H. Woolf. 2015. Investments in Education are investments in health: The State Perspective. Virginia Commonwealth University. https://societyhealth.

Burdick, William. 2007. “Challenges and issues in health professions education in Africa.†Medical Teacher 29(9) (November): 882‒886.

Cometto, G., and J. Campbell. 2016. “Investing in human resources for health: Beyond health outcomes.†Human Resources for Health 14(51).

Department of Health. 2014. Strategic Plan 2014/5-2018/9. Pretoria: National Department of Health.

Dovlo, D. 2003. The Brain Drain and Retention of Health Professionals in Africa. A case study prepared for a Regional Training Conference on Improving Tertiary Education in Sub-Saharan Africa: Things That Work. Accra. 265108883_The_Brain_Drain_and_Retention_of_Health_Professionals_in_Africa_The_Brain_Drain_and_Retention_of_Health_Professionals_in_Africa/links/565d807108ae1ef929829a7e/ The-Brain-Drain-and-Retention-of-Health-Professionals-in-Africa-The-Brain-Drain-and-Retention-of-Health-Professionals-in-Africa.pdf.

Dovlo, D. 2005. “Wastage in the health workforce: Some perspectives from African countries.†Human Resources for Health 3(6).

Essack, S. 2012. “Models for increasing the health workforce.†The South African Medical Journal 102(11) (September): 830‒832.

Frenk, Julio., Lincoln Chen, Zulfiqar A. Bhutta, Jordan Cohen, Nigel Crisp, Timothy Evans, Harvey Fineberg, et al. 2010. “Health professionals for a new century: Transforming education to strengthen health systems in an interdependent world.†The Lancet 376(9756): 1923‒1958.

Global Forum on Human Resources for Health. 2017. Dublin Declaration on Human Resources for Health: Building the Health Workforce of the Future. Dublin: Global Forum on Human Resources for Health.

Global Health Workforce Alliance. 2008. Scaling up, Saving Lives. Douala: World Health Organisation.

Government of South Africa. 2020a. Budget review 2020. Pretoria: National Treasury. (Accessed 10 December 2020).

Government of South Africa. 2020b. South Africa: Big Investment in Higher Education Infrastructure.

Health Policy Project. 2016. Health Financing Profile: South Africa. Washington, D.C.: USAID.

Heher Commission. 2017. Commission of Inquiry into Higher Education and Training. Pretoria: Department of Justice.

Higher Education South Africa. 2014. Higher education challenges. Cape Town: Higher Education South Africa.

International Monetary Fund. 2019. Struggling to make the grade: A review of the causes and consequences of the weak outcomes of South Africa’s Education System. South Africa: International Monetary Fund.

Maphumulo W. T. and B. R. Bhengu. 2019. “Challenges of quality improvement in the healthcare of South Africa post-apartheid: A critical review.†Curationis 42(1) (May): 1901.

McGregor, R. G., G. Zihindula, L. Chola, and A. J. Ross. 2020. “The training of healthcare professionals: An expense or an investment?†South African Medical Journal 110(5) (April): 369‒373.

McIntyre, D., and J. Ataguba. 2014. Access to quality health care in South Africa: Is the health sector contributing to addressing the inequality challenge? Cape Town: UKAid.

Moyakhe, N. P. 2014. “Quality healthcare: An attainable goal for all South Africans?†The South African Journal of Bioethics and Law 7(2) (November): 80‒83.

Mzangwa, S. T. 2019. “The effects of higher education policy on post-apartheid South Africa.†Cogent Education 6(1). DOI: 10.1080/2331186X.2019.1592737.

National Planning Commission. 2012. National Devlopment Plan 2030: Our Future ‒ Make it Work. Pretoria: National Planning Commission.

Noah, L. 2005. “Medical Education and Malpractice: What’s the Connection?†Health Matrix Clevel 15(1): 149‒163.

Oiko Credit. 2017. Investing in Healthcare and Education. k/en/n171/news/view/177499/235625/investing-in-healthcare-and-education.html.

PAHO see Pan American Health Organisation.

Pan American Health Organisation. n.d. Universal Health: Health Professions Education Transformation. 13000:health-professions-education-transformation&Itemid=39594&lang=fr.

PWC. n.d. Funding of public higher education institutions in South Africa. Online (Accessed 22 February 2021).

Shay, Suellen. 2017. “Educational Investment towards the ideal future: South Africa’s strategic choices.†South African Journal of Science 113(1/2). 2017/20160227.

South African Qualifications Authority. 2012. Core Competencies for Undergraduate Students in the Clinical Associate, Dentistry and Medical Teaching and Learning programmes in South Africa. Pretoria: South African Qualifications Authority.

University of KwaZulu Natal. 2010. Medical Education Partnership Initiative. Homepage.aspx.

Van Heerden, B. 2013. “Effectively addressing the health needs of South Africa’s population: The role of health professions education in the 21st century.†South African Medical Journal 103(1): 21+.

Van Staden, D. B. 2019. “Decentralised Clinical Training in Optometry: A developmental strategy for eye health in KwaZulu-Natal?†Primary Healthcare Research and Development 20: E35. doi:10.1017/S1463423618000397.

Walsh, K. 2014. “Medical Education: The case for Investment.†African Health Sciences 14(2) (June): 472–474.

Wangenge-Ouma, G. 2010. “Funding and the attainment of transformation goals in South Africa’s higher education.†Oxford Review of Education 36(4): 481‒497.

West, M. 2012. Education and Global Competitiveness. In Rethinking Competitiveness, ed. K Hasset. Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute Press.

WHO see World Health Organization.

World Health Organization. 2006. The World Health Report 2006 ‒ Working together for health. Geneva: World Health Organization.

World Health Organization. 2018. Health Workforce. February 13. hrh/news/2017/working4health_fiveyearactionplan/en/.

World Health Organization. 2020. State of the World’s Nursing 2020: Investing in education, jobs and leadership. Geneva. World Health Organization.

How to Cite
van Staden, D. (2021). Investing in health professions education: A national development imperative for South Africa. South African Journal of Higher Education, 35(1), 231-245.
General Articles