Health advocacy is a core component of physician competency frameworks. However, advocacy has lacked a clear definition and is understood and enacted variably across contexts. Due to their mobility across contexts, learners are uniquely positioned to provide insight into the tensions that have made this role so difficult to define, but that may be central to this role. The purpose of this study was to map the tensions and contours in conceptions of health advocacy among learners across a variety of learning contexts.
We used constructivist grounded theory and interviewed nine medical students and twenty residents in family, paediatric and internal medicine from across our university's distributed programmes. Data were analysed concurrently using open, focussed and theoretical coding to establish themes and relationships between themes.
Learners understood health advocacy in two overlapping but distinct ways: as a set of behaviours and as a sense of ‘going above and beyond’, through additional effort, time or risk. These two conceptions overlapped and were often in tension. ‘Going above and beyond’ sometimes aligned with identifiable advocacy behaviours; at other times, ‘going above and beyond’ did not align with definitions of health advocacy in competency frameworks and aligned more closely with ‘patient‐centred care’.
Our findings suggest that learners perceive that there are important elements of health advocacy that cannot be captured in universal behaviours that apply across contexts. ‘Going above and beyond’ describes a sense of grappling with sociocultural barriers to patient‐centred care and striving towards better systems and better care for individuals. This more abstract and contextually bound notion of health advocacy may not lend itself easily to definition in competency frameworks and thus adds challenges to both teaching and assessment.