Defining the future of primary care: what can we learn from patients?

Ann Intern Med. 2003 Feb 4;138(3):248-55. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-138-3-200302040-00033.


From the earliest definitions of the term primary care to the most recent, all have stressed that primary care is predicated on a sustained relationship between patients and the clinicians who care for them. Primary care differentiates itself from other areas of medicine by attending to the whole person, in the context of the patient's personal and medical history and life circumstances, rather than focusing on a particular disease, organ, or system. Finally, the primary care physician plays a distinctive role in integrating the care that patients receive from within and outside of the primary care setting. Data obtained from patients over the past 15 years demonstrate that most Americans have a physician whom they consider to be their primary physician. This was the case well before the rules of managed care plans required patients to align themselves with a particular primary care physician and to allow that physician to coordinate all of their medical care. However, information from patients indicates that despite primary care relationships that endure over several years, the ideals of whole-person, integrated care are largely unmet in patients' primary care experiences. Moreover, considerable evidence indicates that the quality of primary care relationships has eroded over the past several years. This article highlights the relative strengths and weaknesses of primary care, as experienced and reported by patients, and posits three areas that must be addressed for primary care to live up to the ideals of sustained partnerships providing whole-person, integrated care. These three areas involve the use of teams in medicine, the establishment of meaningful primary care partnerships, and integration of care in a delivery system that patients experience as increasingly fragmented.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Forecasting*
  • Humans
  • Patient Care Team / standards
  • Patient Satisfaction*
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Primary Health Care / standards
  • Primary Health Care / trends*
  • Quality of Health Care
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • United States