OBJECTIVE: This paper offers theories to explain persistent rural health challenges and describes their application to rural health and research. METHODS: Review of theories from several disciplines. FINDINGS: Key issues in rural health are poorer health status and access to health care, staff shortages, relationship-based health provision and the role of health services in community sustainability. These could be fruitfully addressed by applying theory and findings around social determinants of health, economic sociology, the role of culture and capitals approaches to measuring assets. In particular, the concept of rural health might be a barrier to progressing knowledge; and relational approaches, common in geography, offer a more useful conceptual framework for studying health and place. CONCLUSIONS: To move beyond its current stage, rural health needs to look to other disciplines' theories and ideas; particularly, it needs a more contemporary understanding of what place means so that health status and service provision can be improved by more thoughtful research.