Introduction: Studies have suggested that a rapid increase in physicians does not necessarily change an urban-rural inequity in their distribution. However, it is unknown whether an insufficient supply of physicians worsens an inequity. Spatial competition and attraction-repulsion hypotheses were applied to the geographic distribution of physicians during a time of insufficient physician supply in Japan.
Methods: Trends of physician distribution as well as urban-rural physician flow were compared using Hiroshima Prefecture which had the lowest increase in physician-to-population ratios between 2002 and 2008 (2.7%), and Nagasaki Prefecture where the increase was one of the highest (12.0%) among the 47 Japanese prefectures.
Results: The Gini coefficient of physicians compared with population in Hiroshima increased by 4.1%. Movement toward inequity was greater in Hiroshima compared with Nagasaki where the increase was 2.5%. Approximately 245 physicians or 18.8% moved from rural to urban locations in Hiroshima compared with 143 (14.6%) for Nagasaki (p=0.01). In contrast, 228 (7.6%) urban physicians moved to rural areas in Hiroshima compared with 175 (11.6%) in Nagasaki (p<0.001).
Conclusions: In a time of insufficient supply of physicians, a region with a smaller increase in physicians may experience worsening of the urban-rural distribution of physicians compared with a region where there is a more rapid increase in physicians. One strategy for achieving a more equitable distribution of physicians is to increase in the physician supply relative to demand in order to stimulate competition among urban physicians and maintain the power equilibrium between attraction-to and repulsion-from urban areas.