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OBJECTIVE. This study inquires whether retention in rural practice settings is longer for graduates of public medical schools and community hospital-based residencies, and for those who participated in rural rotations as medical students and residents. These questions are addressed separately for "mainstream" rural physicians and physicians serving in the National Health Service Corps (NHSC). DESIGN. Design is a prospective cohort study. PARTICIPANTS. Study subjects were 202 primary care physicians who graduated from U.S. allopathic medical schools from 1970-1980, and who in 1981 were working in a nationally representative sample of externally subsidized rural practices. Nearly half were serving in the NHSC. Physicians were first identified in 1981 as part of an earlier study. INTERVENTION. In 1990, study subjects were re-located and sent a follow-up mail survey inquiring about their medical training backgrounds and their careers from the time of graduation until 1990. We examined associations between four features of physicians' medical training and their subsequent retention in rural practice settings. RESULTS. Among those not in the NHSC, rural retention duration did not differ for those from public versus private medical schools, those who trained in community hospitals versus university hospital-based residencies, or for those who completed versus did not complete rural rotations as students or residents. Among NHSC physicians, no retention duration differences were noted for those with rural experiences as students or residents, or for those trained in community hospital residencies. Contrary to common wisdom, public school graduates in the NHSC remained in rural areas for shorter periods than private school graduates. CONCLUSIONS. These findings call into question whether current rural-focused medical education initiatives prepare rural physicians in ways able to influence their retention in rural settings. For purposes of enhancing the rural practice retention of its alumni, the NHSC should not selectively award scholarships to students from public medical schools.