The inequitable distribution of health professionals, within countries, poses an important obstacle to the optimal functioning of health services.
To assess the effectiveness of interventions aimed at increasing the proportion of health professionals working in rural and other underserved areas.
We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL, including specialised register of the Cochrane Effective Practice and Organisation of Care Group; March 2014), MEDLINE (1966 to March 2014), EMBASE (1988 to March 2014), CINAHL (1982 to March 2014), LILACS (February 2014), Science Citation Index and Social Sciences Citation Index (up to April 2014), Global Health (March 2014) and the World Health Organization (WHO) International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (ICTRP) (June 2013). We also searched reference lists of all papers and relevant reviews identified, and contacted authors of relevant papers regarding any further published or unpublished work.
Randomised trials, non-randomised trials, controlled before-and-after studies and interrupted time series studies evaluating the effects of various interventions (e.g. educational, financial, regulatory or support strategies) on the recruitment or retention, or both, of health professionals in underserved areas.
Two review authors independently screened titles and abstracts and assessed full texts of potentially relevant studies for eligibility. Two review authors independently extracted data from eligible studies.
For this first update of the original review, we screened 8945 records for eligibility. We retrieved and assessed the full text of 125 studies. Only one study met the inclusion criteria of the review. This interrupted time series study, conducted in Taiwan, found that the implementation of a National Health Insurance scheme in 1995 was associated with improved equity in the geographic distribution of physicians and dentists. We judged the certainty of the evidence provided by this one study very low.
There is currently limited reliable evidence regarding the effects of interventions aimed at addressing the inequitable distribution of health professionals. Well-designed studies are needed to confirm or refute findings of observational studies of educational, financial, regulatory and supportive interventions that might influence healthcare professionals' decisions to practice in underserved areas. Governments and medical schools should ensure that when interventions are implemented, their impacts are evaluated using scientifically rigorous methods to establish the true effects of these measures on healthcare professional recruitment and retention in rural and other underserved settings.