Today’s health care system involves numerous interfaces and patient handoffs among multiple health care practitioners with varying levels of experiences and occupational training. While health care professionals interact with the health care system regularly, it is important to recognize that for most patients, health care can feel like a complex and intimidating maze that they must navigate without the benefit of a map or a guide. Continuity of care is critical to achieving the best outcomes, especially for patients with chronic or multiple medical conditions.
Establishing and maintaining a relationship with a clinician depends on having ready access to them. Studies demonstrate that most patients recognize and value continuity in primary care, but vary in how much priority they give it, depending on their characteristics, circumstances and reason for consultation. Relationship continuity is found to be of higher priority to patients with serious or chronic conditions (rather than acute, minor illnesses), by older people, and by those in poor health or who feel vulnerable.
Traditionally, continuity of care was viewed from the patient's experience of a 'continuous caring relationship' with an identified health care professional. Today, the rapid pace of scientific discovery and technological innovation, accompanied by specialization and greater intensity of health care services, has increased the numbers of clinicians and settings involved in the care process and the complexity of navigating the health care system. Consequently, the delivery of a 'seamless service' through integration, coordination and the sharing of information between different providers is now paramount.
If continuity of care is to remain an inherent element of general practice, a more explicit and concerted effort by patients and clinicians will be needed to build and sustain its various aspects.