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Open Access Research article

Recruitment and retention of occupational therapists and physiotherapists in rural regions: a meta-synthesis

Robin K Roots1 and Linda C Li12*

Author affiliations

1 Department of Physical Therapy, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, V6T 1Z3, Canada

2 Milan Ilich Arthritis Research Centre, 5591 No. 3 Road, Richmond, BC, V6X 2C7, Canada

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Citation and License

BMC Health Services Research 2013, 13:59  doi:10.1186/1472-6963-13-59

Published: 12 February 2013



Significant efforts have been made to address the shortage of health professionals in rural communities. In the face of increasing demand for rehabilitation services, strategies for recruiting and retaining occupational therapists (OTs) and physiotherapists (PTs) have yielded limited success. This study aims to broaden the understanding of factors associated with recruitment and retention of OTs and PTs in rural regions, through a synthesis of evidence from qualitative studies found in the literature.


A systematic search of three databases was conducted for studies published between 1980 - 2009 specific to the recruitment and retention of OTs and PTs to rural areas. Studies deemed eligible were appraised using the McMaster Critical Review Form. Employing an iterative process, we conducted a thematic analysis of studies and developed second order interpretations to gain new insight into factors that influence rural recruitment and retention.


Of the 615 articles retrieved, 12 qualitative studies met the eligibility criteria. Our synthesis revealed that therapists’ decision to locate, stay or leave rural communities was influenced to a greater degree by the availability of and access to practice supports, opportunities for professional growth and understanding the context of rural practice, than by location. The second-order analysis revealed the benefits of a strength-based inquiry in determining recruitment and retention factors. The themes that emerged were 1) support from the organization influences retention, 2) with support, challenges can become rewards and assets, and 3) an understanding of the challenges associated with rural practice prior to arrival influences retention.


This meta-synthesis illustrates how universally important practice supports are in the recruitment and retention of rehabilitation professionals in rural practice. While not unique to rural practice, the findings of this synthesis provide employers and health service planners with information necessary to make evidence-informed decisions regarding recruitment and retention to improve availability of health services for rural residents.

Recruitment; Retention; Workforce; Physical therapy; Occupational therapy; Continuing professional development