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Hum Resour Health. 2009 Jun 26;7:52. doi: 10.1186/1478-4491-7-52.

Designing financial-incentive programmes for return of medical service in underserved areas: seven management functions.

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  • 1Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Mtubatuba, South Africa.


In many countries worldwide, health worker shortages are one of the main constraints in achieving population health goals. Financial-incentive programmes for return of service, whereby participants receive payments in return for a commitment to practise for a period of time in a medically underserved area, can alleviate local and regional health worker shortages through a number of mechanisms. First, they can redirect the flow of those health workers who would have been educated without financial incentives from well-served to underserved areas. Second, they can add health workers to the pool of workers who would have been educated without financial incentives and place them in underserved areas. Third, financial-incentive programmes may improve the retention in underserved areas of those health workers who participate in a programme, but who would have worked in an underserved area without any financial incentives. Fourth, the programmes may increase the retention of all health workers in underserved areas by reducing the strength of some of the reasons why health workers leave such areas, including social isolation, lack of contact with colleagues, lack of support from medical specialists and heavy workload. We draw on studies of financial-incentive programmes and other initiatives with similar objectives to discuss seven management functions that are essential for the long-term success of financial-incentive programmes: financing (programmes may benefit from innovative donor financing schemes, such as endowment funds, international financing facilities or compensation payments); promotion (programmes should use tested communication channels in order to reach secondary school graduates and health workers); selection (programmes may use selection criteria to ensure programme success and to achieve supplementary policy goals); placement (programmes should match participants to areas in order to maximize participant satisfaction and retention); support (programmes should prepare participants for the time in an underserved area, stay in close contact with participants throughout the different phases of enrolment and help participants by assigning them mentors, establishing peer support systems or financing education courses relevant to work in underserved areas); enforcement (programmes may use community-based monitoring or outsource enforcement to existing institutions); and evaluation (in order to broaden the evidence on the effectiveness of financial incentives in increasing the health workforce in underserved areas, programmes in developing countries should evaluate their performance; in order to improve the strength of the evidence on the effectiveness of financial incentives, controlled experiments should be conducted where feasible). In comparison to other interventions to increase the supply of health workers to medically underserved areas, financial-incentive programmes have advantages--unlike initiatives using non-financial incentives, they establish legally enforceable commitments to work in underserved areas and, unlike compulsory service policies, they will not be opposed by health workers--as well as disadvantages--unlike initiatives using non-financial incentives, they may not improve the working and living conditions in underserved areas (which are important determinants of health workers' long-term retention) and, unlike compulsory service policies, they cannot guarantee that they will supply health workers to underserved areas who would not have worked in such areas without financial incentives. Financial incentives, non-financial incentives, and compulsory service are not mutually exclusive and may positively affect each other's performance.

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