BACKGROUND: Rural areas in all countries suffer from a shortage of health care professionals. In South Africa, the shortage is particularly marked; some rural areas have a doctor-to-population ratio of 5.5:100 000. Similar patterns apply to other health professionals. Increasing the proportion of rural-origin students in faculties of health sciences has been shown to be one way of addressing such shortages, as the students are more likely to work in rural areas after graduating.
OBJECTIVE: To determine the proportion of rural-origin students at all medical schools in South Africa.
DESIGN: A retrospective descriptive study was conducted in 2003. Lists of undergraduate students admitted from 1999 to 2002 for medicine, dentistry, physiotherapy and occupational therapy were obtained from 9 health science faculties. Origins of students were classified as city, town and rural by means of postal codes. The proportion of rural-origin students was determined and compared with the percentage of rural people in South Africa (46.3%).
RESULTS: Of the 7 358 students, 4 341 (59%) were from cities, 1 107 (15%) from towns and 1 910 (26%) from rural areas. The proportion of rural-origin students in the different courses nationally were : medicine - 27.4%, physiotherapy - 22.4%, occupational therapy - 26.7%, and dentistry - 24.8%.
CONCLUSION: The proportion of rural-origin students in South Africa was considerably lower than the national rural population ratio. Strategies are needed to increase the number of rural-origin students in universities via preferential admission to alleviate the shortage of health professionals in rural areas.