Background: Continuity is thought to be important to GPs but the values behind this are unknown.
Objectives: To explore the values that doctors working in general practice attach to continuity of patient care and to outline how these values are applied in practice.
Methods: In-depth qualitative interview with 24 GPs in England. Participants were purposefully sampled according to personal and practice characteristics. Analysis was thematic, drawing on the constant comparative method.
Results: The majority of doctors valued doctor-patient, or personal, continuity in their everyday work. It was most valued in patients with serious, complex or psychological problems. GPs believed that through their personal knowledge of the patient and the doctor-patient relationship, personal continuity enabled them to provide higher quality care. However, the benefits of personal continuity were balanced against problems, and GPs identified personal, professional and external constraints that limited its provision. GPs seemed to have resolved the tension between the benefits, limits and constraints they described by accepting an increased reliance on continuity being provided within teams.
Conclusion: Personal continuity may offer important benefits to doctors and patients, but we do not know how unique its values are. In particular, it is not clear whether the same benefits can be achieved within teams, the level at which continuity is increasingly being provided. The relative advantages and limits of the different means of delivering continuity need to be better understood, before further policy changes that affect personal continuity are introduced.