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Shortages of physicians in remote, rural and other underserved areas and lack of general practitioners limit access to health services. The aims of this article are to identify the challenges faced by policy and decision-makers in Portugal to guarantee the availability and geographic accessibility to physicians in the National Health Service and to describe and analyse their causes, the strategies to tackle them and their results. We also raise the issue of whether research evidence was used or not in the process of policy development.
We analysed policy and technical documents, peer-reviewed papers and newspaper articles from 1995 to 2015 through a structured search of government websites, Portuguese online newspapers and PubMed and Virtual Health Library (Biblioteca Virtual em Saúde (BVS)) databases; key informants were consulted to validate and complement the documentary search.
The challenges faced by decision-makers to ensure access to physicians were identified as a forecasted shortage of physicians, geographical imbalances and maldistribution of physicians by level of care. To date, no human resources for health policy has been formulated, in spite of most documents reviewed stating that it is needed. On the other hand, various isolated and ad hoc strategies have been adopted, such as incentives to choose family health as a specialty or to work in an underserved region and recruitment of foreign physicians through bilateral agreements.
Health workforce research in Portugal is scarce, and therefore, policy decisions regarding the availability and accessibility of physicians are not based on evidence. The policy interventions described in this paper should be evaluated, which would be a good starting point to inform health workforce policy development.