• We are sorry, but NCBI web applications do not support your browser and may not function properly. More information
Logo of annfammedLink to Publisher's site
Ann Fam Med. Sep 2003; 1(3): 149–155.
PMCID: PMC1466596

Continuity of Primary Care: To Whom Does It Matter and When?

Paul A. Nutting, MD, MSPH,1 Meredith A. Goodwin, MS,2,3,6 Susan A. Flocke, PhD,2,3,5,6 Stephen J. Zyzanski, PhD,2,3,5,6 and Kurt C. Stange, MD, PhD2,3,4,5,6


BACKGROUND Inconsistent findings on the value of continuity of care can stem from variability in its importance to different subsets of patients. We therefore examined the association among patient and visit characteristics and extent to which the patient valued continuity of care (PVC). We hypothesized that continuity would be more important to patients who are older, sicker, and female, who have established a relationship with their physician, and whose visit addresses more complex problems.

METHODS A study of 4,454 consecutive outpatient visits to 138 community-based family physicians used a 3-item measure (α = 0.67) of PVC. The patient’s report of (1) the adequacy of primary care for the visit and (2) satisfaction with the physician on that visit was assessed with multiple measures. Analyses examined the associations among PVC and patient-reported satisfaction with the physician and adequacy of the visit.

RESULTS Extremes of age, female sex, less education, Medicare and Medicaid insurance, number of chronic conditions and medications, number of visits to the practice, and worse self-reported health status were associated with higher value placed on continuity (P <.001 for all except sex, where P = .015). Patients who value continuity and did not see a regular physician rated adequacy of the visit lower (for 7 attributes of the visit) than those seeing their own physician. Satisfaction with the physician for the visit was greatest among patients who value continuity and saw their regular physician.

CONCLUSIONS Continuity of physician care is associated with more positive assessments of the visit and appears to be particularly important for more vulnerable patients. Health care systems and primary care practices should devote additional effort to maintaining a continuity relationship with these vulnerable patients.

Keywords: Primary health care, physicians, family, continuity of patient care, primary care physicians, quality of care


Continuity of care has been conceptualized as a fundamental aspect of primary care since the resurgence of family practice more than 3 decades ago.1–3 More recently, a sustained patient-physician partnership has been advanced as a defining characteristic of primary care,4,5 for which continuity is seen as a necessary, but not sufficient, condition.5,6

There is evidence for a positive effect of continuity of care on both physician7 and patient8–11 satisfaction with care and patient adherence to medical regimens,12 pregnancy outcomes,13 emergency department14,15 and hospital14,16–18 utilization, overall service utilization, and cost.19,20 Research has failed, however, to show an effect of provider continuity on quality of care for patients with tonsillectomies,21 hospital mortality in patients transferred from nursing homes,22 utilization and costs of ambulatory care,23 and patient satisfaction during prenatal visits and pregnancy complications.24

In addition, there appears to be variability in the extent to which patients value continuity. Although patients often report more satisfaction with their care from a regular physician, recent studies have suggested that many might not be willing to wait to see their regular physician for acute illness.25,26 The literature leaves unanswered the important questions of when continuity matters, to whom, and under what circumstances. Answering these questions will help to determine whether this theoretically fundamental tenet of primary care is relevant to the modern practice of medicine and to the design of health care systems.

In this study, we examined patients’ ratings of the importance of continuity of care with their family physician and their ratings of the adequacy of their visit according to physician seen and nature of the visit. We hypothesized that continuity of physician is more important to older, sicker, female patients and those with an established relationship with a physician. Further, we hypothesized that patients who place a higher value on continuity will rate the visit as less adequate when not seeing their regular physician and when the visit involves more complex problems.


This study analyzed data from the Direct Observation of Primary Care Study, a multimethod cross-sectional study designed to describe the content and context of outpatient visits to family physicians.27,28

Study Sites and Subjects

One hundred thirty-eight family physicians from 84 practices in northeast Ohio participated. They are members of the Research Association of Practices, a regional practice-based research network. The patient sample consisted of consecutive patients seen during the 2 days of observation between October 1994 and August 1995. Patients provided informed consent in the waiting room before meeting with their physicians. To avoid biasing their behavior, physicians and patients were informed only that the study was examining the content of family practice.

Data Collection

Research nurses collected data using direct observation of the patient visit, patient exit questionnaires, medical record review, and billing data for the observed visits. The patient exit questionnaire was completed after the visit by adult patients or parents or guardians of children.


Demographic data, including patient age, sex, race, and educational level, were reported on the patient questionnaire. Health status was measured with 5 items (α = .81)29 from the Medical Outcomes Study (MOS) 6-item General Health Survey.30 Three aspects of adequacy of primary care were assessed with the Components of Primary Care Instrument (CPCI): 5 items on physician’s knowledge of the patient (α = .75), 4 items on coordination of care (α = .79), and 4 items on interpersonal communication (α = .68).29 Patients also reported whether they saw their regular physician during the directly observed visit, the duration of the patient-physician relationship, and the number of different physicians seen in the past year. The number of visits to the regular physician and to other physicians in the past year were also reported. The usual provider continuity index was measured as the proportion of visits to the index physician relative to the total number of visits to all physicians in the past year.31

A 3-item measure (α = .67) from the CPCI29 was used to measure the degree to which patients value continuity of care (PVC), which included the following items: “My medical care improves when I see the same doctor that I have seen before,” “It is very important to me to see my regular doctor,” and “I want one doctor to coordinate all of the health care I receive.” For one analysis that assessed dose-response effects, the PVC data were converted to a categorical variable with responses (mean of 3 components) of high (5), medium (4–4.9), and low (less than 4), based on the distribution of responses on the 5-point Likert-type scale. The categories accounted for 46.8%, 31.8%, and 21.5% of the sample, respectively.

The medical record for all observed patient visits was reviewed to determine the number of chronic illnesses and medications, as well as the number of years the patient visited the practice. Visit complexity was measured from the medical record based on criteria established by the American Medical Association for visit coding.32 Two items assessed complexity of medical decision making during the visit (straightforward, low complexity, moderate complexity, and high complexity) and severity of presenting problem (minimal, self-limited, low severity, moderate severity, and high severity). These 2 items were standardized, and the complexity of the visit was calculated as the mean of the 2 items. Reason for visit was assessed by direct observation and included chronic illness, acute illness, well-patient visit, and other.27

Patient satisfaction with the visit was measured with the 9-item Visit Rating Form from the MOS.33 An additional satisfaction item asked, “To what extent were your expectations met today?” with potential responses including: a lot, quite a bit, moderately, slightly, and not at all. Satisfaction with the physician for the visit was assessed with a 4-item subscale of the MOS form (α = .90).27

Data Analysis

Univariate relationships between patient characteristics and the 3-item measure of the degree to which patients value continuity were tested using Pearson correlation for continuous independent variables and 1-way analysis of variance for categorical variables. The associations among the 3 category PVC measures, whether patients saw their regular physician, and their ratings of visit adequacy were examined with 2-way analyses of variance. Three sequential regression models were constructed to examine the relative effect of patient characteristics, visit characteristics, PVC, and whether the patient saw their regular physician on patient satisfaction with the physician. The first model entered patient characteristics into a backward selection regression model to eliminate patient variables that were not independently associated (if P > .10) with patient satisfaction with the visit. A second model forced in variables significant in the first model, then entered visit characteristics, again using backward selection. Finally, the third model included patient and visit characteristics from the second model, as well as the main effects and interaction term for PVC and seeing a regular physician on the visit. Adjustments were made for multiple hypothesis testing.34,35


The 138 participating physicians were demographically similar to national samples of family physicians, but contained a higher percentage of female and residency-trained physicians.27,28

A total of 4,454 of 4,994 patients (89%) visiting the 138 physicians on observation days agreed to participate in the study. Of these, 3,283 (74%) returned exit surveys. Although the patient sample was demographically similar to patients seeing family and general practitioners in the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey, participants were more likely than nonparticipants to be older, female, white, and married and to have a greater number of chronic illnesses, a longer relationship with the practice, and Medicare or fee-for-service insurance.27,28 Of the 3,283 patients returning the exit survey, 2,763 (84%) provided complete information required for this analysis. These patients represent 61% of the eligible study population and constitute the analytic sample.

Association of patient characteristics with the degree to which patients valued continuity is shown in Table 1 [triangle]. Patient age, sex, education, insurance, length of relationship with the physician, number of chronic conditions and medications, number of visits to the practice, and self-reported health status are associated with the value patients place on continuity. Parents of patients aged 0 to 6 years, and patients aged 40 to 64 years and 65 years and older reported greater value of continuity of care. The greatest PVC was reported by patients with Medicare and Medicaid, and by a small group with undetermined insurance status. All measures of poorer health status, with the exception of dysfunction associated with emotional problems, were strongly associated with PVC.

Table 1.
Characteristics of Patients and Patient Value of Continuity of Care (PVC)

Patients reported seeing their regular physician on 2,459 (89%) of index visits. Those who value continuity were more likely to see their regular physician on the index visit and to report a longer duration of relationship with their physician. Patients valuing continuity rated the physician more highly on the key primary care components of accumulated knowledge of the patients, coordination of care, and interpersonal communication. Because most patients who valued continuity in our sample were able to see their regular physician, we lacked sufficient power to evaluate the independent effect of visit complexity.

Analyses shown in Table 2 [triangle] examine the effect of seeing the regular physician, PVC, and their interaction on several measures of patient assessment of the adequacy of their visit. The data show a consistent dose-response relationship between the degree to which patients value continuity and their assessments of the adequacy of and their satisfaction with the visit. By convention, if the association with the interaction term is statistically significant, the interaction should be interpreted, but not the individual main effects.36 Although the study had adequate statistical power to detect relatively small differences, the main effects shown in Table 2 [triangle] all have moderate to large effect sizes (0.34–0.73) and the 4 interaction terms have large effect sizes (0.99–1.76).

Table 2.
Patient’s Assessment of the Adequacy of Their Primary Care Visit as a Function of Valuing Continuity of Care and Seeing Their Regular Physician

To test the association of PVC with patient satisfaction with the physician, while controlling for confounding patient and visit characteristics, a series of regression models were evaluated. As shown in Table 3 [triangle], model 1 examines the effect of patient characteristics alone. Model 2 adds visit characteristics, resulting in an increase in the strength of the model as reflected in a near doubling of the percentage of variance explained (R2 value ). Model 3 adds the main effects and the interaction term for seeing the regular physician and value of continuity. These analyses show that patient age, health status, and length of the index visit, all independently influence patient satisfaction with the physician. The significant interaction between PVC and visit to regular physician suggests that the effect of seeing a regular physician varies depending on the degree to which patients value continuity of care. Adding the interaction between the degree to which patients value and achieve continuity of care in model 3 more than triples the percentage of variance accounted for in patient satisfaction with the physician.

Table 3.
Regression Models Examining Patient Characteristics, Visit Characteristics, Seeing Regular Physician, and Patient’s Valuing Continuity as Predictors of Patient Rating of Satisfaction with the Physician Visit


Continuity of physician care does not appear to be universally important to patients, but it is particularly important for certain patients during certain types of visits. Patients who value continuity, but do not see their own physician, report lower ratings for a variety of different dimensions of adequacy of care they receive on a given visit. Patients who value continuity tend to be female, at either end of the age spectrum, less educated, have Medicare or Medicaid coverage, have more health problems, require more medication, and report lower health status. Our study sample lacked sufficient statistical power to detect an association with complexity of visit. Nonetheless, we observed significant associations with older age and poorer reported health that suggest the potential importance of visit complexity and should encourage further study.

This study shows that some of the ambiguity in the literature could result from studies that do not distinguish among the types of patients and circumstances in which continuity might be particularly important. Consider 2 patients arranging a visit for an upper respiratory tract infection. One patient, a 35-year-old man specifically seeking an antibiotic might value a same-day appointment more than a visit with a regular physician. On the other hand, an elderly woman with marginal health insurance and substantial chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, who is concerned about the importance of her symptoms and who has already established a relationship with a primary care physician, might judge her care to be of higher quality if seen by a regular physician whom she trusts.

An important strength of this study is its ability to relate patient’s report of the value they place on continuity to their report of specific aspects of the perceived adequacy of primary care and satisfaction for a given visit, either with their regular or with another physician. Nonetheless, we acknowledge several limitations. Patients might have selected these family practices in part because of the opportunities for continuity of physician. For example, continuity of physician has been reported to be lower in health maintenance organization (HMO) clinics,37 whereas only two practices in this study were closed-panel HMOs. In addition, the selection factors involved in the return of questionnaires might have biased the sample toward patients with greater experience of continuity. These factors, however, are likely to have reduced the variability among the independent variables and would tend to bias findings toward the null. Only 10% of our patient sample was not white, and there appeared to be no differences by race in value placed on continuity. Although other work has shown representativeness of physicians, patients,38,39 and physicians’ practice patterns40 from practice-based research networks, the possibility that the physicians or patients participating in this study were atypical in important ways cannot be completely eliminated. Finally, we assessed only a limited array of possible outcomes of continuity of care.

In the practice settings examined in this report, more than 90% of patients saw their regular physician. In these family practices it appears that patients were able to achieve continuity for many of those visits in which it is hypothesized to be important. Other study designs might examine effects of continuity on patient populations with more variation in the value placed on continuity and their ability to achieve it. It is also a concern to speculate about the extent to which continuity can be valued in the increasing number of settings in which it has not been experienced – it is hard to appreciate something that one has not experienced. The current organizational and financial restructuring of the health care system creates strong pressures against continuity, with employers changing plans and plans changing providers.41,42 Forced disruption in continuity of care is common, particularly for those with a managed care type of insurance, and results in lower quality of primary care.43 Forced disruption in continuity is more difficult for patients who are older, have more chronic illness, are in the middle of a workup for a new problem, or who have a longstanding relationship with the physician.44 Only about 50% of patients in previous studies report continuity of physician,37,45,46 and these rates could be lower for elderly minority patients46,47 and those without health insurance.48

Because continuity appears to have greater importance to vulnerable populations,46,47,49.50 who in turn might experience greater difficulty achieving continuity, additional research to understand the complex effects of continuity takes on urgent policy importance. Until further evidence is available, the findings of this study should encourage design of practice systems that enhance provision of continuous, relationship-centered care, particularly for those vulnerable populations who most value and appear to benefit from it. These patients are more likely to be female, very young or old, less educated, insured through Medicare or Medicaid, and sicker by multiple measures. Because patients who have established a continuity relationship with a physician tend to value it and to report greater satisfaction and quality of care when they achieve continuity with this physician, systems to expand the experience of continuous care are needed to extend these benefits.


The authors are grateful to the physicians, office staffs and patients without whose participation this study would not have been possible.


Conflicts of interest: none reported


Financial support
This study was funded by a family practice research center grant from the American Academy of Family Physicians, and by grants from the National Cancer Institute (1R01 CA80862, 2R01 CA80862, K24 CA81031) and a Generalist Physician Faculty Scholar Award from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.


1. Institute of Medicine. A Manpower Policy for Primary Care: Report of a study. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; 1978.
2. McWhinney IR. An Introduction to Family Medicine. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 1981.
3. Stephens GG. The Intellectual Basis of Family Practice. Tucson, Ariz: Winter Publishing Co; 1982.
4. Institute of Medicine. Primary Care: America’s Health in a New Era. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; 1996.
5. Starfield B. Primary Care: Concept, Evaluation, and Policy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 1992.
6. Leopold N, Cooper J, Clancy C. Sustained partnership in primary care. J Fam Pract 1996;42:129–137. [PubMed]
7. Blankfield RP, Kelly RB, Alemagno SA, King CM. Continuity of care in a family practice residency program. Impact on physician satisfaction. J Fam Pract 1990;31:69–73. [PubMed]
8. Hjortdahl P, Laerum E. Continuity of care in general practice: Effect on patient satisfaction. BMJ 1992;304:1287–1290. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
9. Weyrauch KF. Does continuity of care increase HMO patients’ satisfaction with physician performance? J Am Board Fam Pract 1996;9:31–36. [PubMed]
10. DiMatteo MR, Hays R. The significance of patients’ perceptions of physician conduct: A study of patient satisfaction in a family health center. J Community Health 1980;6:18–34. [PubMed]
11. Christakis DA, Wright JA, Zimmerman FJ, Bassett AL, Connell FA. Continuity of care is associated with high-quality care by parental report. Pediatrics 2002;109:e54. [PubMed]
12. Becker MH, Drachman RH, Kirscht JP. Predicting mothers’ compliance with pediatric medical regimens. J Pediatr 1972;81:843–54. [PubMed]
13. Shear CL, Gipe BT, Mattheis JK, et al. Provider continuity and quality of medical care: A retrospective analysis of prenatal and perinatal outcome. Med Care 1983;21:1204–1210. [PubMed]
14. Wasson JH, Sauvigne AE, Mogielnicki P, et al. Continuity of outpatient medical care in elderly men: a randomized trial. JAMA 1984; 252:2413–2417. [PubMed]
15. Christakis DA, Mell L, Koepsell TD, Zimmerman FJ, Connell FA. Association of lower continuity of care with greater risk of emergency department use and hospitalization in children. Pediatrics 2001; 107:524–529. [PubMed]
16. Gill JM, Mainous AG. The role of provider continuity in preventing hospitalizations. Arch Fam Med 1998;7:352–357. [PubMed]
17. Mainous AG, Gill JM. The importance of continuity of care in the likelihood of future hospitalization: Is site of care equivalent to a primary clinician? Am J Public Health 1998;88:1539–1541. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
18. Billings J, Teicholz N. Data Watch. Uninsured patient in District of Columbia Hospitals. Health Affairs 1990;9:158–165. [PubMed]
19. Raddish M, Horn SD, Sharkey PD. Continuity of care: is it cost effective? Am J Manag Care 1999;5:727–34. [PubMed]
20. Weiss LJ, Blustein J. Faithful patients: The effect of long-term physician-patient relationships on the costs and use of health care by older Americans. Am J Public Health 1996;86:1742–1747. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
21. Roos LL, Roos NP, Gilbert P, Nicol JP. Continuity of care: does it contribute to quality of care? Med Care 1980;18:174–184 [PubMed]
22. Susman J, Zervanos NJ, Byerly B. Continuity of care and outcome in nursing home patients transferred to a community hospital. Fam Med 1989;21:118–121 [PubMed]
23. Chao J. Continuity of care: incorporating patient perceptions. Fam Med 1988;20:333–337 [PubMed]
24. Flynn SP. Continuity of care during pregnancy: the effect of provider continuity on outcome. J Fam Pract 1985;21:375–380. [PubMed]
25. Love MM, Mainous AG. Commitment to a regular physician: How long will patients wait to see their own physician for acute illness? J Fam Pract 1999;48:202–207. [PubMed]
26. Freeman GK, Richards SC. Is personal continuity of care compatible with free choice of doctor? Patients’ views on seeing the same doctor. Br J Gen Pract 1994;43:493–497. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
27. Stange KC, Zyzanski SJ, Jaen CR, et al. Illuminating the “black box”: a description of 4454 patient visits to 138 family physicians. J Fam Pract 1998;46:377–389. [PubMed]
28. Stange KC, Zyzanski SJ, Smith TF. How valid are medical records and patient questionnaires for physician profiling and health services research? A comparison with direct observation of patient visits. Med Care 1988:36:851–867. [PubMed]
29. Flocke SA. Measuring attributes of primary care: Development of a new instrument. J Fam Pract 1975;45:65–74. [PubMed]
30. Ware J, Nelson E, Sherbourne C, Stewart A. Preliminary tests of a 6-item general health survey: A patient application. In: Ware J, ed. Measuring functioning and well-being. Durham, NC: Duke University Press; 1992:291-307.
31. Breslau N, Reeb K. Continuity of care in a university-based practice. J Med Educ 1975;50:965–969. [PubMed]
32. Kirschner CG, Burkett RC, Coy JA, et al. Physicians’ Current Procedural Terminology: CPT ‘95. Chicago, Ill: American Medical Association; 1994.
33. Rubin H, Gandek B, Roger WH, Kosinski M, McHorney C, Ware J. Patients’ ratings of outpatient visits in different practice settings. JAMA 1993;270:835–840. [PubMed]
34. Benjamini Y, Hochberg Y. Controlling the false discovery rate: A practical and powerful approach to multiple testing. J R Stat Soc B 1995; 57:289–300.
35. Hochberg Y. A sharper Bonferroni procedure for multiple tests of significance. Biometrika 1988;75:800–802.
36. Keppel G. Design and analysis: A researcher’s handbook. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall; 1973:179.
37. Rubin HR, Gandek B, Rogers WH, Kosinski M, McHorney CA, Ware JE. Patients’ ratings of outpatient visits in different practice settings. Results from the Medical Outcomes Study. JAMA 1993;270:835–840. [PubMed]
38. Green LA, Miller RS, Reed FM, Iverson DC, Barley GE: How representative of typical practice are practice-based research networks? A report from ASPN. Arch Fam Med 1993;2:939–949, [PubMed]
39. Gilchrist V, Miller RS, Gillanders WR, et al. Does family practice at residency teaching sites reflect community practice? J Fam Pract 1993;37:555–563. [PubMed]
40. Nutting PA, Baier M, Werner JJ, et al: Practice patterns of family physicians in practice based research networks. A report from ASPN. J Am Board Fam Pract 1999;12:278–284. [PubMed]
41. Hurley RE, Gage BJ, Freund DA. Rollover effects in gatekeeper programs: Cushioning the impact of restricted choice. Inquiry 1991;28: 375–384. [PubMed]
42. The community tracking study. Washington, DC: Center for Studying Health System Change; 1997.
43. Flocke SA, Stange KC, Zyzanski S. The impact of insurance type and forced discontinuity on the delivery of primary care. J Fam Pract 1997;45:129–135. [PubMed]
44. Kahana E, Stange K, Meehan R, Raff L. Forced disruption in continuity of primary care: The patients’ perspective. Soc Focus 1997;30: 172–182.
45. Freeman GK, Richards SC. How much personal care in four group practice? BMJ 1990;301:1028–1030. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
46. Cornelius LJ. The degree of usual provider continuity for African and Latino Americans. J Health Care Poor Underserved 1997;8:170–185. [PubMed]
47. Berk ML, Bernstein AB. Regular source of care and the minority aged. J Am Geriatr Soc 1982;30:251–254. [PubMed]
48. Forrest CB, Starfield B. Entry into primary care and continuity: the effects of access. Am J Public Health 1998;88:1330–1336. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
49. Breslau N. Continuity reexamined: differential impact on satisfaction with medical care for disabled and normal children. Med Care 1982; 20:347–360. [PubMed]
50. Love MM, Mainous AG, Talbert JC, Hager GL. Continuity of care and the physician-patient relationship: The importance of continuity to patients with asthma. J Fam Pract 2000;49:998–1004. [PubMed]

Articles from Annals of Family Medicine are provided here courtesy of American Academy of Family Physicians
PubReader format: click here to try


Related citations in PubMed

See reviews...See all...

Cited by other articles in PMC

See all...


  • PubMed
    PubMed citations for these articles

Recent Activity

Your browsing activity is empty.

Activity recording is turned off.

Turn recording back on

See more...