Medical student education: Ability and aptitude in health education


In education ability refers to “potential performance”. Ability is difficult to measure. You can have a student with high ability but low performance or vice versa; low ability  with high performance. Other factors come to play in ability such as background, naturally gifted and creativity. I can recollect an older  doctor commenting that Afrikaner  medical students were born surgeons. It was as if they grew up with knives in their hands.  It may be related to outdoor living for which South Africa is so ideal.

Ability is also complicated by the concept if a “late developer”. The amount of Noble prize winners for physics among seventy year olds comes to mind.

Physical attributes can play a role. The question was once debated whether surgeons should have small hands to be able to operate effectively in the very cramped abdominal or chest cavity. It  was postulated that gynaecologists should have big hands to be able to palpate masses deeply hidden in the pelvis. The determination of pelvic size pre-delivery is also easier for a person with big hands (that was of course before imaging technology became so readily available).

Hobbies such as fly fishing, hunting, endurance sport, dog breeding, diving and other adventure sports are all skills that can increase a student’s natural ability, psychomotor skills and temperament to become a good doctor.


Aptitude is the potential of a learner to assimilate knowledge, skill or understanding successfully. It differs from ability in that it represents the potential to learn.

Aptitude tests have been developed that can measure a student’s aptitude. These tests have been utilised for screening pre-employment.