Background: Inequitable distribution of the medical workforce is an international problem that undermines universal access to healthcare. Governments in many countries have invested in rural-focused medical education programs to increase the supply of rural doctors.
Methods: Using a structured five-step approach, a scoping review was conducted to map the existing evidence on the relationship between professional entry-level, pre-vocational medical education delivered in rural settings and rural workforce outcomes. Key search terms were developed, with database searches yielding 37 relevant articles. During data charting, a set of types of studies emerged, and we developed a typology to assist with article sorting and information structuring.
Results: Medical students attending a rural campus or spending time in a rural area are more likely to practise in non-metropolitan areas upon graduation than students studying at a city campus. In many cases, these positive findings could be confounded by students having a rural origin or being predisposed to want rural work. There is some evidence to suggest that the longer a person spends time as a medical student in a rural area, the more likely they are to work rurally following graduation. Overall, the articles located had limitations related to small sample size, inconsistent definition of rurality and lack of attention to controlling for variables that might influence rural practice decision, for example, rural background. Comparative data were lacking, and most studies were conducted by staff from the medical schools that were the focus of the research. There was no consideration given in any study found to the cost-effectiveness of entry-level medical education delivered in rural settings versus other ways of producing rural practitioners.
Conclusions: Given limitations, available evidence suggests that medical education in a rural location does increase the number of medical graduates that will work in a rural place. There are indications of a gradient effect where increased rural practice exposure during medical education leads to more rurally located graduates; however, robust studies are needed to verify this finding. Given the significant funding being directed to universities to increase graduates that will work rurally, appropriate future research is recommended.