Recently there has been an increase in the number of courses designed to improve the theoretical knowledge and practical skills of health workers for immediate emergency management under life-threatening conditions. However, the numbers of applicants for these courses far exceed the available places. Priorities should be reviewed to solve the current shortfall. The purpose of this study was to compare the improvement in basic knowledge associated with the advanced trauma life support (ATLS) programme for paediatricians practising in a metropolitan area, with those practising in rural hospitals. This should facilitate proper use of the limited existing resources for training of physicians. A retrospective, comparative analysis of the impact of the ATLS courses for pediatricians was assessed by analysing scores of multiple choice tests before and after the programme. The study group comprised all Israeli paediatricians (n = 72) who completed the course during 1996. Performance was compared between paediatricians working in major, level I (n = 39) and rural, level II trauma centres (n = 33). After the course, all paediatricians improved their scores; those in level I trauma centres improved their mean precourse scores from 72 +/- 13.6 to 85 +/- 5.4, while those working in level II trauma centres improved from 67 +/- 12.4 to 85 +/- 5.0. The impact of the course was reflected in the net and proportional gains. Both were higher for paediatricians working in level II trauma centres, compared with those working in metropolitan trauma centres. Furthermore, the net gain was significantly higher (p < 0.05). Efforts should be made to increase the participation of paediatricians practising in rural level II trauma centres in trauma care courses. Further research should address the applicability of these results for recruiting primary care physicians to the ATLS courses.