BACKGROUND: In the face of rising demand for medical services due to ageing populations, physician migration flows are increasingly affecting the supply of physicians in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and development (OECD) countries. This paper offers an integrated perspective on the impact of physician migration on home and host countries and discusses international regulation and policy approaches governing physician migration. METHODS: Information about migration flows, international regulation and policies governing physician migration were derived from two questionnaires sent to OECD countries, a secondary analysis of EUROSTAT Labour Force Surveys, a literature review and official policy documents of OECD countries. RESULTS: OECD countries increasingly perceive immigration of foreign physicians as a way of sustaining their physician workforce. As a result, countries have entered into international agreements regulating physician migration, although their success has been limited due to the imposition of licensing requirements and the protection of vested interests by domestic physicians. OECD countries have therefore adopted specific policies designed to stimulate the immigration of foreign physicians, whilst minimising its negative impact on the home country. Measures promoting immigration have included international recruitment campaigns, less strict immigration requirements and arrangements that foster shared learning between health care systems. Policies restricting the societal costs of physician emigration from developing countries such as good practice guidelines and taxes on host countries have not yet produced their expected effect or in some cases have not been established at all. CONCLUSIONS: Although OECD countries generally favour long-term policies of national self-sufficiency to sustain their physician workforce, such policies usually co-exist with short-term or medium-term policies to attract foreign physicians. As this is likely to continue, there is a need to create a global framework that enforces physician migration policies that confer benefits on home and host countries. In the long term, OECD countries need to put in place appropriate education and training policies rather than rely on physician migration to address their future needs.