The debate over physicians' geographical distribution has attracted the attention of the economic and public health literature over the last forty years. Nonetheless, it is still to date unclear what influences physicians' location, and whether foreign physicians contribute to fill the geographical gaps left by national doctors in any given country. The present research sets out to investigate the current distribution of national and international physicians in Portugal, with the objective to understand its determinants and provide an evidence base for policy-makers to identify policies to influence it.
A cross-sectional study of physicians currently registered in Portugal was conducted to describe the population and explore the association of physician residence patterns with relevant personal and municipality characteristics. Data from the Portuguese Medical Council on physicians' residence and characteristics were analysed, as well as data from the National Institute of Statistics on municipalities' population, living standards and health care network. Descriptive statistics, chi-square tests, negative binomial and logistic regression modelling were applied to determine: (a) municipality characteristics predicting Portuguese and International physicians' geographical distribution, and; (b) doctors' characteristics that could increase the odds of residing outside the country's metropolitan areas.
There were 39,473 physicians in Portugal in 2008, 51.1% of whom male, and 40.2% between 41 and 55 years of age. They were predominantly Portuguese (90.5%), with Spanish, Brazilian and African nationalities also represented. Population, Population's Purchasing Power, Nurses per capita and Municipality Development Index (MDI) were the municipality characteristics displaying the strongest association with national physicians' location. For foreign physicians, the MDI was not statistically significant, while municipalities' foreign population applying for residence appeared to be an additional positive factor in their location decisions. In general, being foreigner and male resulted to be the physician characteristics increasing the odds of residing outside the metropolitan areas. However, among the internationals, older doctors were more likely to reside outside metropolitan areas. Being Spanish or Brazilian (but not of African origin) was found to increase the odds of being based outside the Lisbon and Oporto metropolitan areas.
The present study showed the relevance of studying one country's physician population to understand the factors driving national and international doctors' location decisions. A more nuanced understanding of national and foreign doctors' location appears to be needed to design more effective policies to reduce the imbalance of medical services across geographical areas.