Objective: To assess the contribution of primary care systems to a variety of health outcomes in 18 wealthy Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries over three decades.
Data sources/study setting: Data were primarily derived from OECD Health Data 2001 and from published literature. The unit of analysis is each of 18 wealthy OECD countries from 1970 to 1998 (total n = 504).
Study design: Pooled, cross-sectional, time-series analysis of secondary data using fixed effects regression.
Data collection/extraction methods: Secondary analysis of public-use datasets. Primary care system characteristics were assessed using a common set of indicators derived from secondary datasets, published literature, technical documents, and consultation with in-country experts.
Principal findings: The strength of a country's primary care system was negatively associated with (a) all-cause mortality, (b) all-cause premature mortality, and (c) cause-specific premature mortality from asthma and bronchitis, emphysema and pneumonia, cardiovascular disease, and heart disease (p<0.05 in fixed effects, multivariate regression analyses). This relationship was significant, albeit reduced in magnitude, even while controlling for macro-level (GDP per capita, total physicians per one thousand population, percent of elderly) and micro-level (average number of ambulatory care visits, per capita income, alcohol and tobacco consumption) determinants of population health.
Conclusions: (1) Strong primary care system and practice characteristics such as geographic regulation, longitudinality, coordination, and community orientation were associated with improved population health. (2) Despite health reform efforts, few OECD countries have improved essential features of their primary care systems as assessed by the scale used here. (3) The proposed scale can also be used to monitor health reform efforts intended to improve primary care.