Compulsory community service for doctors in South Africa: A 15-year review

S J Reid, J Peacocke, S Kornik, G Wolvaardt


Background. Compulsory community service (CS) for health professionals for 12 months was introduced in South Africa (SA) in 1998, starting with medical practitioners. Up to 2014, a total of 17 413 newly qualified doctors and ~44 000 health professionals had completed their year of service in public health facilities around the country. While a number of studies have described the experience and effects of CS qualitatively, none has looked at the programme longitudinally.

Objectives. To describe the findings and analyse trends from surveys of CS doctors between 2000 and 2014, specifically with regard to their distribution, support, feedback and career plans.

Methods. A consecutive cross-sectional descriptive study design was used based on annual national surveys of CS doctors. The study population of between 1 000 and 1 300 each year was surveyed with regard to their origins, allocations, experiences of the year and future career plans.

Results. The total study population varied between 1 057 and 1 308 each year, with response rates of 20 - 77%. The average turn-up rate of 89% showed a decreasing tendency, while 77% of respondents were satisfied with the allocation process. Over the 15-year period, the proportion of CS doctors who were black and received a study bursary, and who were allocated to rural areas and district hospitals, increased. The great majority believed that they had made a difference (91%) and developed professionally (81%) over the course of the year, but only about half felt adequately supported clinically and administratively. The attitude towards CS of the majority of respondents shifted significantly from neutral to positive over the course of the 15 years. In terms of future career plans, 50% hoped to specialise, a decreasing minority to go overseas or into private practice, and a constant 15% to work in rural or underserved areas.

Conclusions. This study is the first to track the experience of compulsory CS over time in any country in order to describe the trends once it had become institutionalised. The SA experience of CS for doctors over the first 15 years appears to have been a successively positive one, and it has largely met its original objectives of redistribution of health professionals and professional development. Greater attention needs to be given to orientation, management support and clinical supervision, and focusing professional development opportunities on the important minority who are prepared to stay on longer than their obligatory year. CS still needs to be complemented by other interventions to capitalise on its potential.

Authors' affiliations

S J Reid, Primary Health Care Directorate, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Cape Town, South Africa

J Peacocke, Africa Health Placements, Johannesburg, South Africa

S Kornik, Africa Health Placements, Johannesburg, South Africa

G Wolvaardt, Foundation for Professional Development, Pretoria, South Africa

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Health systems; Human resources for health; Compulsory service; Community service; Rural health; South Africa

Cite this article

South African Medical Journal 2018;108(9):741-747. DOI:10.7196/SAMJ.2018.v108i9.13070

Article History

Date submitted: 2018-08-30
Date published: 2018-08-30

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