What is primary care?

26.06.14 Royal Pharmaceutical Society

By Gareth Holyfield, FRPharmS, MPH, DipCommPharm, Principal Pharmacist, Public Health Wales and Welsh Pharmacy Board member

During my working week, and through many media sources on healthcare, I hear the term ‘primary care’ but what exactly is primary care?

I guess it means different things to different people. This is my personal take, based on my experiences in community pharmacy, hospital pharmacy and health board management.

‘Primary care,’ according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is ‘the healthcare provided in the community for people making an initial approach to a medical practitioner or clinic for advice or treatment.’ 

For me, however, primary care is broader than this. Yes, a patient’s first point of contact may be a medical practitioner like a GP, who is able refer patients to secondary and perhaps tertiary care by making use of different care settings.  In reality, patients seek health advice from a range of professionals, so the initial approach maybe to a pharmacist, nurse, or even a professional working in the social or voluntary care sector. The boundaries between healthcare and social care are often blurred so these third sector agencies could be considered primary carers.

Today we talk a lot about integrated care but as healthcare is still defined by its location, perhaps it can only truly be integrated when there is a change in the underlying environment where healthcare takes place.

Certainly, patients benefit when different care providers collaborate. My local RPS practice forum recently organised a campaign workshop to prepare for the ‘lower your risk of stroke’ campaign, which ran in community pharmacies during February and March 2015. Carers, representatives from voluntary sector, hospital pharmacists, and community pharmacists valued the opportunity to learn from each other, and explored how each could best contribute to the care of stroke patients.

This brings me to my last point: does it matter to the patient whether it is primary care, secondary care, social care or voluntary service care?  I think not, as long as the patient gets the care they need when they need it.