OBJECTIVE--To review available evidence on the problems facing rural health care in the UK. In particular, to determine whether the health of rural populations is worse than that of town dwellers and how the quality of health care is influenced by rurality. CRITERIA FOR INCLUSION AND EXCLUSION OF ARTICLES--A wide variety of publications and data sources were used. A number of computerised databases with different specialisations (for example medical, health care management) were used to identify relevant published articles. In addition, reports, reviews, and surveys produced by agencies for local circulation were identified by approaching academic, service, and voluntary bodies thought likely to have an interest in rural health. Although this "grey" literature is not subject to peer review, the relative lack of relevant UK publications made it a useful data source for illustrative purposes. Similarly, published articles based on rural health in other developed countries were used when UK data were lacking. CONCLUSIONS--Although the evidence concerning the health and health care of the UK rural populations is suggestive, it is very general and further research is needed. Levels of urban health seem to be generally worse than in rural areas, but contradictions do exist. The evidence on quality of care suggests that service accessibility is a central problem, and rural populations have poorer access than others. Within rural populations, such disadvantage is not uniformly experienced--it affects some groups more than others. In addition, the NHS does not seem to have a consistent policy about whether rurality should influence resource allocation, and how it should be incorporated.
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