A key policy issue in many countries is the maldistribution of doctors across geographic areas, which has important effects on equity of access and health care costs. Many government programs and incentive schemes have been established to encourage doctors to practise in rural areas. However, there is little robust evidence of the effectiveness of such incentive schemes.
The aim of this study is to examine the preferences of general practitioners (GPs) for rural location using a discrete choice experiment. This is used to estimate the probabilities of moving to a rural area, and the size of financial incentives GPs would require to move there. GPs were asked to choose between two job options or to stay at their current job as part of the Medicine in Australia: Balancing Employment and Life (MABEL) longitudinal survey of doctors. 3727 GPs completed the experiment. Sixty five per cent of GPs chose to stay where they were in all choices presented to them. Moving to an inland town with less than 5000 population and reasonable levels of other job characteristics would require incentives equivalent to 64% of current average annual personal earnings ($116,000). Moving to a town with a population between 5000 and 20,000 people would require incentives of at least 37% of current annual earnings, around $68,000. The size of incentives depends not only on the area but also on the characteristics of the job. The least attractive rural job package would require incentives of at least 130% of annual earnings, around $237,000. It is important to begin to tailor incentive packages to the characteristics of jobs and of rural areas.