Introduction: Sub-Saharan Africa(SSA) is the world region worst affected by physician migration. Identifying reasons why medical students wish to stay or leave Africa could assist in developing strategies which favour retention of these graduates. This study investigated the career intentions of graduating students attending medical schools in SSA to identify interventions which may improve retention of African physicians in their country of training or origin.
Methods: Final year medical students attending nine medical schools in SSA were surveyed--students from four schools in South Africa and one school each in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda. The response rate was 78.5% (990 of 1260 students); data from the 984 students who indicated they were remaining in medicine were entered into a database, and descriptive statistics were obtained.
Results: Most (97.4%) of the 984 responding students were African by birth. The majority (91.2%) intended to undertake postgraduate training; the top three specialty choices were surgery (20%), internal medicine (16.7%), and paediatrics (9%). Few were interested in family medicine (4.5%) or public health (2.6%) or intended to practice in rural areas (4.8%). Many students (40%) planned to train abroad. About one fifth (21%) intended to relocate outside sub-Saharan Africa. These were about equally divided between South Africans (48%) and those from the other five countries (52%). The top perceived career-related factors favouring retention in Africa were career options and quality and availability of training opportunities. Several factors were reported significantly more by South African than the other students. The top personal factors for staying in Africa were a desire to improve medicine in Africa, personal safety, social conditions and family issues. The top career-related factors favouring relocation outside Africa were remuneration, access to equipment and advanced technology, career and training opportunities, regulated work environment and politics of health care in Africa. Several of these were reported significantly more by students from the other countries as compared with South Africans. The top personal factors favouring relocation outside Africa were personal safety, opportunity for experience in a different environment, social conditions and greater personal freedom.
Discussion: The career intentions of African medical students are not aligned with the continent's health workforce needs. A number of interventions that warrant further attention were identified in this study.