Ethical issues arising from the government allocation of physicians to rural areas: a case study from Japan

J Med Ethics. 2023 Sep 12:jme-2023-108971. doi: 10.1136/jme-2023-108971. Online ahead of print.


The geographically inequitable distribution of physicians has long posed a serious social problem in Japan. The government tackled this problem by establishing and managing Jichi Medical University (JMU) and regional quotas (RQs) for medical schools. JMU/RQs recruit local students who hope to work as physicians in rural areas, educate them for 6 years without tuition (JMU) or with scholarship (RQs), and after graduation, assign them to their home prefectures for 9 years, including 4-6 years of rural service. JMU/RQs entrants now occupy 11.6% of all medical school entrants. While JMU/RQs have been shown to be highly effective in securing physicians for rural areas, ethical issues related to these policies have been raised, such as whether the government truly needs to implement these policies using tax money, and whether it is acceptable to limit the personal freedoms of the physicians. In this paper, we discuss these issues from the perspectives of social justice, utilitarianism, luck egalitarianism, liberty, medical professionalism and consistency with national health insurance and the Japanese Constitution. We conclude that JMU/RQs are necessary and ethically valid policies, and also propose some institutional improvements to better secure the integrity and maturity of these systems.

Keywords: Education; Health Workforce; Policy; Resource Allocation; Right to Health.