OBJECTIVE: The Soft Skills Project examined the professional development of medical students at the University of Pretoria, especially their
doctor-patient interaction skills and professional socialisation. This paper reports on one of the findings of the project, namely the
importance that medical students attach to role models in the development of soft skills. METHODS: We used a qualitative method with
symbolic interactionism and grounded theory as framework. Fourty two final-year students from the last cohort following the traditional
curriculum at the University of Pretoria in 2001, and 49 final years from the first cohort following the reformed curriculum in 2002 were
recruited. Data were collected by applying focus groups, in-depth, individual interviews, as well as autobiographical sketches. Data were
captured by means of audio tape recordings, transcripts of the tapes, researchers’ field notes, and written accounts by students, and were
analysed by using a general inductive approach. RESULTS: There were no striking differences between the comments of the two groups.
Students considered registrars to be the most influential role models in the clinical teaching context, followed by specialist consultants.
Their idea of a good role model was a clinically and academically competent doctor that cared about patients, had good interpersonal
skills, and who could inspire students. Students needed and appreciated good role models to help them to develop their own soft skills.
They expected guidance and behavioural examples from clinical teachers. Although there were competent role models, the students were
exposed to poor role models. Poor role models mainly affect students negatively. Students tend to imitate and perpetuate unacceptable
behaviour. Furthermore, poor role models have a negative emotional effect on students and are detrimental to their moral and learning
environment. Sometimes, poor role models have a paradoxical positive effect in the sense that they inform students how not to behave.
CONCLUSION: Medical schools and medical doctors working with medical students should be consciously aware of the importance of role
models both when allocating clinical teachers to students, and while performing duties with students. It is especially necessary to realise
that poor role modelling has important detrimental effects on students. Therefore, an attempt should be made to ensure that not only
clinical examination skills, but also soft skills, are demonstrated at the bedside. Measures to ensure adequate exposure of students to
positive role models could include: staff development; the identification of good role models to guide registrars; and a reallocation of tasks,
where possible, to increase the exposure of students to the ‘natural’ role models.