OBJECTIVE: To assess critically the results of using three different approaches to planning for the number of general surgeons in rural areas. DESIGN: Estimates of the number of general surgeons needed using a ratio approach, a and a population-needs-based approach. SETTING: Rural southern Manitoba. OUTCOME MEASURE: Number of general surgeons needed. RESULTS: The ratio approach supported the recruitment of 7.8 to 14.5 additional general surgeons to rural southern Manitoba. The repatriation approach suggested that the area might support five additional general surgeons, if residents could be persuaded to undergo their surgery closer to home. The population-needs-based approach suggested that the health status of area residents was similar to that of residents of other areas of the province and that they had a higher rate of surgery than residents of other areas; no additional surgeons were apparently needed. CONCLUSIONS: Each method has certain advantages, and none is necessarily useful in isolation. Hence, the most effective approach to planning for general surgeons is likely a combination of all three methods. Other factors that may be important include the type of payment structure and the need for professional groups to monitor variations in rates of surgery.