Background Like many other low- and middle-income countries, India faces challenges of recruiting and retaining health workers in rural areas. Efforts have been made to address this through contractual appointment of health workers in rural areas. While this has helped to temporarily bridge the gaps in human resources, the overall impact on the experience of rural services across cadres has yet to be understood. This study sought to identify motivations for, and the challenges of, rural recruitment and retention of nurses, doctors and specialists across types of contract in rural and remote areas in India's largely rural north-eastern states of Meghalaya and Nagaland. Methods A qualitative study was undertaken, in which 71 semi-structured interviews were carried out with doctors (n = 32), nurses (n = 28) and specialists (n = 11). In addition, unstructured key informant interviews (n = 11) were undertaken, along with observations at health facilities and review of state policies. Data were analysed using Ritchie and Spencer's framework method and the World Health Organization's 2010 framework of factors affecting decisions to relocate to, stay in or leave rural areas. Results It was found that rural background and community attachment were strongly associated with health workers' decision to join rural service, regardless of cadre or contract. However, this aspiration was challenged by health-systems factors of poor working and living conditions; low salary and incentives; and lack of professional growth and recognition. Contractual health workers faced unique challenges (lack of pay parity, job insecurity), as did those with permanent positions (irrational postings and political interference). Conclusion This study establishes that the crisis in recruiting and retaining health workers in rural areas will persist until and unless health systems address the core basic requirements of health workers in rural areas, which are related to health-sector policies. Concerted attention and long-term political commitment to overcome system-level barriers and governance may yield sustainable gains in rural recruitment and retention across cadres and contract types.
ASJC Scopus subject areas