Background: The National Health Service Corps (NHSC) scholarship program is the most ambitious program in the United States designed to supply physicians to medically underserved areas. In addition to providing medical service to underserved populations, the NHSC promotes long-term retention of physicians in the areas to which they were initially assigned. This study uses existing secondary data to explore some of the issues involved in retention in rural areas.
Methods: The December 1991 American Medical Association (AMA) Masterfile was used to determine the practice location and specialty of the 2903 NHSC scholarship recipients who graduated from US medical schools from 1975 through 1983 and were initially assigned to nonmetropolitan counties. We used the AMA Masterfile to determine what percentage of the original cohort was still practicing in their initial county of assignment and the relation of original practice specialty and assignment period to long-term retention.
Results: Twenty percent of the physicians assigned to rural areas were still located in the county of their initial assignment, and an additional 20 percent were in some other rural location in 1991. Retention was highest for family physicians and lowest for scholarship recipients who had not completed residency training when they were first assigned. Retention rates were also higher for those with longer periods of obligated service. Substantial medical care service was provided to rural underserved communities through obligated and postobligation service. Nearly 20 percent of all students graduating from medical schools between 1975 and 1983 who are currently practicing in rural counties with small urbanized populations were initially NHSC assignees.
Conclusions: Although most NHSC physicians did not remain in their initial rural practice locations, a substantial minority are still rural practitioners; those remaining account for a considerable proportion of all physicians in the most rural US counties. This study suggests that rural retention can be enhanced by selecting more assignees who were committed to and then completed family medicine residencies before assignment.