Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Compulsory service programmes for recruiting health workers in remote and rural areas: do they work?

Seble Frehywot, Fitzhugh Mullan, Perry W Payne & Heather Ross

Compulsory service programmes have been used worldwide as a way to deploy and retain a professional health workforce within countries. Other names for these programmes include ”obligatory”, ”mandatory”, ”required” and ”requisite.” All these different programme names refer to a country’s law or policy that governs the mandatory deployment and retention of a heath worker in the underserved and/or rural areas of the country for a certain period of time. This study identified three different types of compulsory service programmes in 70 countries. These programmes are all governed by some type of regulation, ranging from a parliamentary law to a policy within the ministry of health. Depending on the country, doctors, nurses, midwives and all types of professional allied health workers are required to participate in the programme. Some of the compliance-enforcement measures include withholding full registration until obligations are completed, withholding degree and salary, or imposing large fines. This paper aims to explain these programmes more clearly, to identify countries that have or had such programmes, to develop a typology for the different kinds and to discuss the programmes in the light of important issues that are related to policy concepts and implementation. As governments consider the cost of investment in health professionals’ education, the loss of health professionals to emigration and the lack of health workers in many geographic areas, they are using compulsory service requirements as a way to deploy and retain the health workforce.

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