Primary care is the day-to-day healthcare given by a health care provider. Typically this provider acts as the first contact and principal point of continuing care for patients within a healthcare system, and coordinates other specialist care that the patient may need. Patients commonly receive primary care from professionals such as a primary care physician (general practitioner or family physician), a nurse practitioner (adult-gerontology nurse practitioner, family nurse practitioner, or pediatric nurse practitioner), or a physician assistant. In some localities such a professional may be a registered nurse, a pharmacist, a clinical officer (as in parts of Africa), or a Ayurvedic or other traditional medicine professional (as in parts of Asia). Depending on the nature of the health condition, patients may then be referred for secondary or tertiary care.
The World Health Organization attributes the provision of essential primary care as an integral component of an inclusive primary healthcare strategy. Primary care involves the widest scope of healthcare, including all ages of patients, patients of all socioeconomic and geographic origins, patients seeking to maintain optimal health, and patients with all manner of acute and chronic physical, mental and social health issues, including multiple chronic diseases. Consequently, a primary care practitioner must possess a wide breadth of knowledge in many areas. Continuity is a key characteristic of primary care, as patients usually prefer to consult the same practitioner for routine check-ups and preventive care, health education, and every time they require an initial consultation about a new health problem. Collaboration among providers is a desirable characteristic of primary care.
The International Classification of Primary Care (ICPC) is a standardized tool for understanding and analyzing information on interventions in primary care by the reason for the patient visit. Common chronic illnesses usually treated in primary care may include, for example: hypertension, angina, diabetes, asthma, COPD, depression and anxiety, back pain, arthritis or thyroid dysfunction. Primary care also includes many basic maternal and child health care services, such as family planning services and vaccinations.
In context of global population ageing, with increasing numbers of older adults at greater risk of chonic non-communicable diseases, rapidly increasing demand for primary care services is expected around the world, in both developed and developing countries.
In the United Kingdom, patients can access primary care services through their local general practice, community pharmacy, optometrist, dental surgery and community hearing care providers. Services are generally provided free-of-charge through the National Health Service. In the UK, unlike many other countries, patients do not normally have direct access to hospital consultants and the GP controls access to secondary care. This practice is referred to as "gatekeeping"; the future of this role has been questioned by researchers who conclude "Gatekeeping policies should be revisited to accommodate the government’s aim to modernise the NHS in terms of giving patients more choice and facilitate more collaborative work between GPs and specialists. At the same time, any relaxation of gatekeeping should be carefully evaluated to ensure the clinical and non-clinical benefits outweigh the costs".
599 GP practices closed between 2010–11 and 2014–15, while 91 opened and average practice list size increased from 6,610 to 7,171.
According to the Local Government Association 57 million GP consultations in England in 2015 were for minor conditions and illnesses, 5.2 million of them for blocked noses.
In Nigeria, healthcare is a concurrent responsibility of three tiers of government. Local governments focus on the delivery of primary care (e.g. through a system of dispensaries), state governments manage the various general hospitals (secondary care), while the federal government's role is mostly limited to coordinating the affairs of the Federal Medical Centres and university teaching hospitals (tertiary care).
A 2009 report by the New England Healthcare Institute determined that an increased demand on primary care by older, sicker patients and decreased supply of primary care practitioners has led to a crisis in primary care delivery. The research identified a set of innovations that could enhance the quality, efficiency and effectiveness of primary care in the United States.
On March 23, 2010 President Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) into law. The law is expected to expand health insurance coverage by 32 million people by 2016 and 34 million people by 2021. The success of the expansion of health insurance under the ACA in large measure depends on the availability of primary care physicians. Unfortunately, The ACA has drastically exacerbated the projected deficit of primary care physicians needed to ensure care for insured Americans. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) without the ACA, the United States would have been short roughly 64,000 physicians by 2020; with the implementation of the ACA, it will be 91,000 physicians short. According to the AAMC's November 2009 physician work force report, nationally, the rate of physicians providing primary care is 79.4 physicians per 100,000 residents.
Primary healthcare results in better health outcomes, reduced health disparities and lower spending, including on avoidable emergency room visits and hospital care. With that being said, primary care physicians are an important component in ensuring that the healthcare system as a whole is sustainable. However, despite their importance to the healthcare system, the primary care position has suffered in terms of its prestige in part due to the differences in salary when compared to doctors that decide to specialize. In a 2010 national study of physician wages conducted by the UC Davis Health System found that specialists are paid as much as 52 percent more than primary care physicians, even though primary care physicians see far more patients.
Primary care physicians earn $60.48 per hour; specialists on average earn $88.34. A follow up study conducted by the UC Davis Health System found that earnings over the course of the careers of primary care physicians averaged as much as $2.8 million less than the earnings of their specialist colleagues. This discrepancy in pay has potentially made primary care a less attractive choice for medical school graduates. In 2011, about 17,000 doctors graduated from American medical schools and only 7 percent of graduates chose a career in primary care. The average age of a primary care physician in the United States is 47 years old, and one quarter of all primary care physicians are nearing retirement. Fifty years ago roughly half of the physicians in America practiced primary care; today, fewer than one third of them do.
US Strategies to Address the Primary Care Shortage
The Patient Protection Affordable Care Act contains a number of provisions to increase primary care capacity. These provisions are directed towards medical school graduates and include payment reform, student loan forgiveness programs and increased primary care residency positions The PPACA also provides funding and mandates to increase the role of physician extenders like nurse practitioners and physician assistants to enhance the primary care workforce. The PPCA is projected to increase patient demand for primary care services. Through the adoption of new patient care delivery models that include physicians working in tandem with nurse practitioners and physician assistants, demand for future primary care services could be met. Consumer surveys have found the American public to be open to a greater role for physician extenders in the primary care setting. Policies and laws, primarily at the state level, would need to redefine and reallocate the roles and responsibilities for non-physician licensed providers to optimize these new models of care.