Rural patients who are admitted to hospitals outside their residence county or who travel great distances for hospitalization deprive local rural hospitals of revenue. To provide more information about such rural residents, we studied their characteristics compared to those admitted in the same county. Characteristics studied included illness severity, demographics and county resources. To validate the findings and to provide a different analytic approach, characteristics of residents who travel long distances for admission were also studied. We studied admissions for ambulatory care sensitive conditions, as they might be most responsive to policy changes such as increasing recruitment of local primary-care physicians. Hospital discharges during 1994 for 248,656 New York State residents were studied. We constructed multivariate models using logistic regression and ordinary least squares methods. The models were applied to residents in three types of geographic location along an urban-rural continuum. Outside admissions were associated with younger age, higher illness severity and fewer county hospital resources. Same county admissions were associated with nonwhite race, and lack of insurance. Surprisingly, in rural counties, outside admissions were directly associated with increased primary-care providers. Results from the distance model generally supported findings from the outside admission model.