Contact Us
7 August 2018
School Of Public Health Guidebook Shares Wisdom From Africa’s Largest Continuing Education Programme

(Published - 7 August 2018)

In 1992, the University of the Western Cape (UWC) conducted its first Public Health Winter School, providing an opportunity for health professionals to be exposed to new ideas and thinking in the field, to learn specific skills and to engage with peers - without the need for extended absences from work.

Now, drawing on decades of experience running these annual short courses, UWC’s School of Public Health (SOPH) has launched a new book, Building Public Health Capacity through a Short Courses Professional Development Programme: a Guide.

“The Guide responds to the numerous requests from colleagues, both in South Africa and abroad, to share lessons and provide guidance on the planning of similar continuing professional development programmes in the health sector, and related social sectors,” explains Prof Uta Lehmann, Director of the School of Public Health - and lead writer of the Guide.

Every June/July (when university students are on vacation) the SOPH offers a three-week Winter School programme comprising 18 to 25 courses. Through this programme, between 200 and 500 health workers are exposed to the latest thinking in public health each year, enabling them to discuss and exchange ideas on the improved planning and implementation of primary health care, district health systems and health equity.

The Guide opens the door to the workings of the programme, from advertising and marketing to organising teaching venues and materials, and managing accreditation. It also provides a history of the programme through the eyes of the colleagues who initiated and were involved in it, from its inception to the present.

“People want to know what it takes to set up and continue running such a large and sustained programme in an academic institution; why interest does not wane?; and, how we manage the focus, substance and logistics of this programme?”

To date, more than 12 000 health care practitioners and managers from all over South Africa and many other African countries have attended at least one of the SOPH short courses.

“The Guide doesn’t aim to provide a blueprint, as continuing education programmes inevitably have to respond to specific contexts,” Prof Lehmann notes.  “Rather it raises the key themes, questions and issues to consider when planning such a programme – enriched with reflections from staff and participants at the SOPH.”

While the Guide focuses on public health, many of the themes are applicable to continuing professional development programmes in the public sector, and can be used and/or adapted for other fields.

Building Public Health Capacity through a Short Courses Professional Development Programme: a Guide is freely available from the SOPH website at When developing programmes from the guide, please acknowledge the original source - and please share any adaptations in the interest of refining and developing this resource.

Living and Learning, and a Legacy of Giving

The Winter School was the brainchild of the late Prof Jakes Gerwel, former UWC Rector, who established the SOPH to strengthen education and research in public health and primary health care, and to build capacity in the health services.

“It was a time of transformation in the health sector - when a  district health system with a primary health care orientation needed to be built from scratch from the ruins of the highly fragmented and inequitable health system operated by the apartheid regime,” Prof Lehmann explains.

“We wanted to contribute to ensuring that there would be equity, efficiency and sustainability in our health system; and in the first decade of our democracy, we understood our brief to be to contribute to promoting access to health care generally and primary health care in particular.”

Prof Gerwel had the vision in the early 1990s to understand the magnitude of the task ahead for the transformation of the health sector – a vision that is still starkly valid a quarter of a century later.

The Winter School’s purpose and rationale is to offer professional development opportunities for role players in the public sector (be they managers, frontline providers or activists) at the lowest possible cost, contributing to the strengthening of primary health care, district health systems and health equity in the country and in Africa.

The programme provides a rare opportunity for stakeholders in the public health sector, across seniority and backgrounds, to share experiences and think together without the restrictions and constraints of steep hierarchies and urgent agendas.