"I live in a bubble": Speech-language therapy and audiology students' expectations and experiences of a rural community work practicum.Rural Remote Health 2013 Jan-Mar; 13(1):2131RR
Locally and internationally, there have been renewed calls for equitable access to healthcare services. Simultaneously, caseloads have become more challenging and contexts more complex, which may be overwhelming to new graduates. The South African context offers a particularly interesting example of these challenges. Educators need to use innovative ways to ensure that curricula adequately prepare students for rural community work, while developing a sense of leadership that links clinical practice to theory, policy, ethics and social responsibility. Rural practica offer opportunities for sensitizing and equipping students for working in underserviced communities and a number of international studies have documented their potential usefulness. There is limited research, however, that examines how exposure to rural community work may shape students' responses to the realities of working in such contexts. This study aimed to explore the processes underlying a group of South African speech-language therapy and audiology students' appreciation and understanding of the realities of work in a rural community after a rural practicum.
A four-day practicum took place in a rural community in South Africa. The practicum incorporated basic audiological tasks and structured observations. Twenty-five third-year students completed anonymous pre- and post-practicum open-ended questionnaires. The questionnaires explored their expectations and perceptions of the practicum, perceived challenges and benefits of working in rural community areas, and considerations that might need to be taken into account. The questionnaires were analysed and compared using thematic analysis principles.
Results revealed a distinction between students' emotional and personal expectations of, and responses to, the practicum compared to their clinical expectations and responses. Before the practicum, students indicated a number of anxieties such as not feeling emotionally prepared or feeling anxious about infection control. The rural practicum appeared to provide a powerful teaching tool that led to growth in students' empathy and awareness of community needs and contextual issues through a shift from an intrapersonal to an interpersonal focus in their responses. A lack of growth was noted in some areas after the practicum, however, such as students' ideas about implementing appropriate therapy and making modifications to materials.
This study holds significant implications for preparing students to work in challenging contexts and rural communities both in South Africa and abroad. The results suggest that a one-off practicum is not sufficient to sensitize students to the challenges of rural work and enable them to overcome anxieties. Rather, a sustained commitment to rural community work should be introduced early on in the curriculum and educators should be encouraged to reflect on their own attitudes, experiences, biases and anxieties towards community work.