This study describes how graduates of the University of Washington Family Medicine Residency Network who practice in rural locations differ from their urban counterparts in demographic characteristics, practice organization, practice content and scope of services, and satisfaction. Five hundred and three civilian medical graduates who completed their residencies between 1973 and 1990 responded to a 27-item questionnaire sent in 1992 (84% response rate). Graduates practicing outside the United States in a specialty other than family medicine or for fewer than 20 hours per week in direct patient care were excluded from the main study, leaving 116 rural and 278 urban graduates in the study. Thirty percent of graduates reported practicing in rural counties at the time of the survey. Rural graduates were more likely to be in private and solo practices than urban graduates. Rural graduates spent more time in patient care and on call, performed a broader range of procedures, and were more likely to practice obstetrics than urban graduates. Fewer graduates in rural practice were women. A greater proportion of rural graduates had been defendants in medical malpractice suits. The more independent and isolated private and solo practice settings of rural graduates require more practice management skills and support. Rural graduates' broader scope of practice requires training in a full range of procedures and inpatient care, as well as ambulatory care. Rural communities and hospitals also need to develop more flexible practice opportunities, including salaried and part-time positions, to facilitate recruitment and retention of physicians, especially women.