Background: Providing postgraduate rural training programs has been recognized as central for successful recruitment and retention of medical workforce. While there have been many documented cases of rural training program development, documented program outcome evaluations are few.
Objectives: This review investigated how postgraduate training and educational programs for rural and remote medicine are evaluated worldwide. Through the use of a systematic review, the study explored three questions: ‘What are the outcomes of postgraduate rural and remote training programs worldwide?’; ‘How are the program evaluations conducted?’; and ‘What evaluation models and approaches are used in evaluating the effectiveness of these training programs?’
Methods: A qualitative synthesis was undertaken of evaluations of postgraduate rural training programs published in the English language in medical education journals. The study involved pooling quantitative and mixed-methods research data and findings from qualitative studies, which were aggregated, integrated and interpreted. PubMed, PsycINFO, ERIC, and Web of Science databases were searched to identify studies that satisfy the search criteria.
Results: Of the 1,297 articles identified through the database search, 26 studies were included in the analysis. Most of the evidence from the studies consists of descriptive studies with some longitudinal tracking programs and cohort studies. Nine themes were identified [practice location after training completion; training location and decentralized model; educational aspects; incentives, political contexts and regulations; personal, social and cultural issues; professional development; rural orientation and community engagement; support system; and gender and racial issues]. Key outcomes were analyzed and cross-validated against the 2020 WHO guideline on health workforce development, attraction, recruitment and retention in rural and remote areas. These studies' most frequent evaluation methods were surveys, followed by interviews, questionnaires, and secondary data from existing databases. Methodological characteristics, the relationship between rural background and program outcomes, and implications for decentralized training, telehealth and tele-assessment during the COVID-19 pandemic are discussed. Analysis from the key outcomes suggests evaluation as a strategy to uncover outcomes in postgraduate rural and remote training and medical education.
Conclusion: Regardless of the similar outcomes, the program evaluations implemented and the robustness of evidence vary across programs and medical schools. The absence of solid evaluation designs and their alignment to the program objectives will lessen the strengths of evidence. Better quality research and evaluation design, objective settings, qualitative inquiry to uncover the contexts, and developing appropriate indicators and benchmarks for monitoring and evaluating strategies must be considered during program development and implementation.