Original Research

Are interpersonal communication skills adequately taught at postgraduate specialist level in South Africa? The neurology experience

Anand Moodley, Anton van Aswegen, Liesl Smit
South African Family Practice | Vol 63, No 1 : Part 3| a5275 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/safp.v63i1.5275 | © 2021 Anand Moodley, Anton Van Aswegen, Liesl Smit | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 27 January 2021 | Published: 15 June 2021

About the author(s)

Anand Moodley, Department of Neurology, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa; and, Department of Neurology, Universitas Hospital, Bloemfontein, South Africa
Anton van Aswegen, Department of Neurosurgery, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa
Liesl Smit, Department of Neurosurgery, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa


Background: Interpersonal communication skills by clinicians with patients, carers, fellow health professionals and legal professionals carry many unique challenges in practice. Whilst undergraduate training in communication helps with generic information receiving and information giving, uncomfortable and demanding speciality-specific issues in the various medical specialities are not covered during under- and postgraduate training.

Methods: The aim of this study was to determine the self-perceived competence of neurology registrars and neurologists in interpersonal communication and the need for such assessment in college exit exams. We undertook a quantitative, descriptive, cross-sectional survey by using self-administered printed questionnaires and the EvaSYS online system. Neurology registrars in training from the seven training centres in South Africa and neurologists based at the training centres and in the private sector were recruited.

Results: We received a 62.9% response rate. One hundred and twenty-nine participants were recruited comprising 42 neurology registrars and 87 neurologists. Registrars were more commonly female, more likely to be multilingual and less likely to use translators. Undergraduate training in communication was considered insufficient, 42.9% and 39.1% for registrars and specialists respectively, and was also considered not relevant to address speciality-specific issues encountered in practice. Most training received has been by observation of others and on-the-job training. Both groups felt strongly that postgraduate training in interpersonal communication was important (registrars 95.2%, specialists 91.9%), especially when dealing with issues of death and dying, disclosing medical errors and dealing with the legal profession.

Conclusion: Postgraduate training of interpersonal communication as required of neurology registrars and neurologists was considered insufficient. Most training has been by observation of others or experiential by trial and error. Assessment of interpersonal communication at board exit exams will drive postgraduate training and importantly will embrace the AfriMEDS framework developed to produce the holistic doctor in South Africa.


interpersonal communication; AfriMEDS; CanMEDS; breaking bad news; disclosing medical errors; objectively structured clinical exam; objectively structured practical exam


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