Lessons for the global primary care response to COVID-19: a rapid review of evidence from past epidemics

Fam Pract. 2021 Nov 24;38(6):811-825. doi: 10.1093/fampra/cmaa142.


Background: COVID-19 is the fifth and most significant infectious disease epidemic this century. Primary health care providers, which include those working in primary care and public health roles, have critical responsibilities in the management of health emergencies.

Objective: To synthesize accounts of primary care lessons learnt from past epidemics and their relevance to COVID-19.

Methods: We conducted a review of lessons learnt from previous infectious disease epidemics for primary care, and their relevance to COVID-19. We searched PubMed/MEDLINE, PROQUEST and Google Scholar, hand-searched reference lists of included studies, and included research identified through professional contacts.

Results: Of 173 publications identified, 31 publications describing experiences of four epidemics in 11 countries were included. Synthesis of findings identified six key lessons: (i) improve collaboration, communication and integration between public health and primary care; (ii) strengthen the primary health care system; (iii) provide consistent, coordinated and reliable information emanating from a trusted source; (iv) define the role of primary care during pandemics; (v) protect the primary care workforce and the community and (vi) evaluate the effectiveness of interventions.

Conclusions: Evidence highlights distinct challenges to integrating and supporting primary care in response to infectious disease epidemics that have persisted over time, emerging again during COVID-19. These insights provide an opportunity for strengthening, and improved preparedness, that cannot be ignored in a world where the frequency, virility and global reach of infectious disease outbreaks are increasing. It is not too soon to plan for the next pandemic, which may already be on the horizon.

Keywords: COVID-19; epidemics; evidence synthesis; primary care; public health; rapid review.

Plain Language Summary

Infectious disease epidemics are increasing in frequency and spread. Primary health care providers are at the forefront of community health care, and have an important role in managing health emergencies such as infectious disease epidemics. It is important to use lessons learnt from past epidemics to inform current health system responses. We examined evidence from past epidemics and identified six key lessons that have emerged in 11 countries during four previous epidemics and again during the COVID-19 pandemic. These lessons highlight the importance of integrating pandemic responses across health care disciplines, strengthening the primary health care system, defining the role of primary care during epidemics, protecting the health care workforce and the community, providing clear and consistent information and evaluating the effectiveness of health care responses. Health system weaknesses are exposed to health emergencies. Identification of these recurring lessons for primary health care provides an opportunity to definitively prepare for future infectious disease epidemics.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19*
  • Disease Outbreaks
  • Humans
  • Pandemics
  • Primary Health Care
  • SARS-CoV-2