Although about 20 percent of Americans live in rural areas, only 9 percent of physicians practice there. Physicians consistently and preferentially settle in metropolitan, suburban and other nonrural areas. The last 20 years have seen a variety of strategies by medical education programs and by federal and state governments to promote the choice of rural practice among physicians. This comprehensive literature review was based on MEDLINE and Health STAR searches, content review of more than 125 relevant articles and review of other materials provided by members of the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine Working Group on Rural Health. To the extent possible, a particular focus was directed to "small rural" communities of less than 10,000 people. Significant progress has been made in arresting the downward trend in the number of physicians in these communities but 22 million people still live in health professions shortage areas. This report summarizes the successes and failures of medical education and government programs and initiatives that are intended to prepare and place more generalist physicians in rural practice. It remains clear that the educational pipeline to rural medical practice is long and complex, with many places for attrition along the way. Much is now known about how to select, train and place physicians in rural practice, but effective strategies must be as multifaceted as the barriers themselves.