This is a slightly revised version of an article submitted to the BMJ on 5 October 2016.
There is an interesting article in the BMJ this week by Greenfield et al on ‘Rethinking primary care’s gatekeeping role’ that covers only one element of primary care, and in excluding other, more important, aspects of the role risks these others being left out of the debate entirely.
Greenfield’s premise is based on a model of health care that is currently fashionable, but which is simplistic and linear in its philosophy: ‘I’ve been diagnosed with prostate cancer, it needs treating, I need to see the right specialist as quickly as possible’. Such a symptomatic approach to medicine is clearly important, but assumes an entirely straightforward, physical spectrum of disease.
The reality of modern health care is that it is being overwhelmed by complex illness that combines multiple physical diagnoses, often chronic in nature, with social and psychological overlays. Treating my prostate without considering my diabetes, my hypertension, the impact of my illness on my job, income, and mental wellbeing is reductive and sub-optimal, not only in clinical terms, but also in terms of cost-effectiveness.
Whilst the role of general practice clearly includes gatekeeping, that function needs to be put into the context of care co-ordination and the management of complexity. In the multilayered fabric of the NHS, the warp of clearly defined clinical pathways being organised in efficient straight lines needs to be held together by the weft of primary care, weaving the intricate patterns that make up genuinely effective care. Just as the conductor of an orchestra balances the dynamics of the different sections of the orchestra to produce an harmonious melody rather than a cacophonous row, so effective primary care juggles the different (and often conflicting) drivers that influence us all, to produce coherent and effective care.
When this is done well, the whole system benefits, and researchers such as Barbara Starfield have pointed out that the cost-effectiveness of health services is proportional to their degree of primary care orientation, not because of gatekeeping per se, but because of effective and appropriate holistic case management.
The risk is that an article like Greenfield’s (which doesn’t mention anything outside the linear referral model) is that it reinforces our increasingly symptomatic approach to medicine, where we treat diseases rather than people, with the inevitable result that demands and costs rise, duplication and inefficiency ensue, and everyone suffers from care that is completely at odds with the human condition.
What is required is a model that is more co-ordinated professionally and organizationally, that aligns incentives appropriately, and that carries public opinion with it. As long as the public continues to expect the linear simplicity described by Greenfield and colleagues, that is what will be provided; only when there is a better understanding of the subtlety and complexity of health care will we have any chance of rebalancing the system. Articles such as this risk moving the debate in precisely the wrong direction.
 Starfield B: The Contribution of Primary Care Systems to Health Outcomes within Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Countries, 1970–1998 Health Services Research Volume 38, Issue 3, pages 831–865, June 2003 DOI: 10.1111/1475-6773.00149