Continuity of care. Needed now more than ever.

Continuity of care.

The political restructuring of the NHS is increasing the range of hospital and community health care providers[1]. This fragmentation of care risks what Michael Balint referred to as the “collusion of anonymity” in which different parts of the patient’s health are cared for by different specialists and consequently important aspects are neglected because they fall outside the specialist’s remit. [2] Consequently, now more than ever, a comprehensive, generalist primary care physician providing continuity of care, is essential.

Continuity of care is the care of an individual patient over time. Various attempts have been made to define continuity, many of which try break down comprehensive continuity of care into subsets of continuity, for example, informational, management and relational continuity.[3]

All subsets are essential components of patient care. Continuity of information on the electronic record and continuity of management through the use of shared guidelines and protocols get more attention because they are more easily assessed than relational continuity which is complex and difficult to measure. Relational continuity is the basis of the doctor-patient relationship and requires doctors and patients to understand each other’s personalities and remember past experiences and not simply recognise professional roles and clinical features. [4]

I would define relational continuity as the therapeutic relationship between a doctor and a patient, developed over time in which the doctor takes responsibility for coordinating the patient’s care.

In measuring the effects of continuity of care, the question might not be, “Does continuity of care make a difference at a population level?” but rather, “Are there specific sub-populations for which continuity of care is especially valuable?”For most healthy, wealthy, young individuals, contact with aphysician is unlikely to have a measurable impact on their already good health.[5]

Approximately 75% of all GP consultations are with people over the age of 70 and 75% of these people have multiple chronic conditions. In a deprived inner city environment where we work, the incidence of serious mental illnesses, drug and alcohol addiction and chronic stress due to social determinants such as unemployment, poor housing, crime and violence results in high re-attendance rates from a significant proportion of our practice population. For these people relational continuity is particularly important. [6]

Multiple conditions interact in ways that fall outside the remit of clinical guidelines. For example deterioration in mental health or social stress may result in a patient with diabetes neglecting their diet and medication with a subsequent loss of diabetic and hypertensive control. Regaining control of one disease is inextricably bound up with recognising and supporting them as they deal with the others. A frail patient with multiple problems may appear to a clinician with whom they have a relationship to look seriously unwell or their usual frail self the moment they walk through the consulting room door depending on their usual appearance and levels of stoicism or distress.

“The implicit choice between personal continuity and modern care is false; what evidence there is suggests that patients prefer services providing personal continuity, and this may also reduce the use of investigations and admissions to hospital” [7] There is also evidence that improved continuity of care results in better preventative care and lower costs. [8] Other benefits include:

  1. Greater efficiency due to better communication and trust, facilitating information gathering.
  2. Increased safety because communication and awareness of subtle changes not included in the electronic record or clinical guidelines. Many critical incidents we have investigated involve lack of continuity and have resulted in changes to improve relational continuity.
  3. Higher patient satisfaction because of better reassurance and confidence in care. In patients with serious mental illness this is particularly important because the individual nature of the illness.

I believe that continuity of relationship is essential to organise and coordinate the increasingly fragmented care that patients receive. Continuity of relationship is most important in the care of patients with multiple chronic diseases, mental illnesses and social distress. These are the greatest users of the NHS. Prioritising speed of access and choice of provider risks damaging continuity of care for those who most need it.

Jonathon Tomlinson October 7th 2009


See also: Boosting continuity of care could save millions Pulse 10.04.2012 (source link £)

[1] Our Health, Our Choice, Our Say. Department of Health White Paper 2006

[2] Balint, Michael. The Doctor, His Patient and The Illness. 1954

[3] Haggerty JL, Reid RJ, Freeman GK, Starfield B, Adair CE, McKendry R. Continuity of care: a multidisciplinary review. BMJ 2003;327:1219-21.

[4] Greenhalgh, Trisha. Narrative based medicine in an evidence based world. BMJ 1999;318:323-325 ( 30 January )

[5] Christakis, Dimitri A. Continuity of Care: Process or outcome? Annals of Family Medicine 1:131-133 (2003)

[6] Guthrie et.al Continuity matters. BMJ 2008; 377: a867

[7] Guthrie B, Wyke S. Does continuity in general practice really matter? BMJ. 2000;321:734–736.

[8] Saultz, J. W., Lochner, J. (2005). Interpersonal Continuity of Care and Care Outcomes: A Critical Review. Ann Fam Med 3: 159-166

Continuity of Primary Care. To who does it matter, and when? 

Defining and measuring interpersonal continuity of care. Annals of Family Medicine Sept 2003

The importance of continuity of care in the likelihood of future hospitalization: is site of care equivalent to a primary clinician? American Journal of Public Health 1998

The Kings Fund: Continuity of Care Report by George Freeman, Emeritus Professor of General Practice, Imperial College London, and Jane Hughes, an independent researcher.

Continuity of GP care is related to reduced specialist healthcare use: a cross-sectional survey BJGP July 2013

The patient’s perspective on the importance of knowing your GP. Diaryofabenefitscounger.

5 responses to “Continuity of care. Needed now more than ever.

  1. Pingback: The end of personal care? « Abetternhs's Blog

  2. Pingback: Who and what do GPs stand for? | Abetternhs's Blog

  3. Golddust. Thank you. And we are now measuring continuity, and designing access so that it is enhanced. See poster http://www.patient-access.org.uk/userfiles/file/Patient%20Access%20SAPC%20poster%2010-2012%20v2.pdf Access and continuity are linked. When the lid is taken off access, continuity is enabled. The reason is simply that if access is scarce, patients will take whichever doctor they can. The duty doctor then gets everyone and anyone, while “routine, advance” appointments are given out to whoever is lucky enough to get through.
    The vicious circle is broken when access is free and patients can choose which doctor they see, usually wanting the same as last time.

  4. Pingback: Patient centred care: Rhetoric and reality

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