Original Research

The Role of Family Practice in Different Health Care Systems

I.M. Okkes, MA, PhD
G.O. Polderman, MD
G.E. Fryer, PhD
T. Yamada, MD
M. Bujak, MD
S.K. Oskam, MSc, PhD
L.A. Green, MD
H. Lamberts, MD, PhD
Amsterdam and Amstelveen, the Netherlands; Tokyo, Japan; Katowice, Poland; and Washington, DC
Submitted, revised, October 21, 2001.
From the Academic Medical Center/University of Amsterdam, Division of Public Health, Department of Family Practice, Amsterdam (I.M.O., S.K.O., H.L.); Family Physician, Transition Project, Amstelveen (G.O.P.); the Robert Graham Center: Policy Studies in Family Practice and Primary Care, Washington, DC (G.E.F., L.A.G.); the Japanese Association for Development of Community Medicine, Tokyo (T.Y.); and the Silesian Medical School, Katowice (M.B.). Reprint requests should be addressed to I.M. Okkes, MA, PhD, Academic Medical Center/University of Amsterdam, Division Public Health, Department of Family Practice, Meibergdreef 15, 1105 AZ Amsterdam, the Netherlands. E-mail: i.m.okkes@amc.uva.nl.

A Comparison of Reasons for Encounter, Diagnoses, and Interventions in Primary Care Populations in the Netherlands, Japan, Poland, and the United States



OBJECTIVE: Our goal was to compare the content of family practice in different countries using databases containing information on reasons for encounter, diagnoses, and interventions that are coded with or can be addressed by the International Classification of Primary Care (ICPC).

STUDY DESIGN: In the Netherlands, Japan, and Poland data were collected identically with an electronic patient record (Transhis). For all face-to-face encounters the reasons for encounter, diagnoses, and interventions were coded according to the ICPC within an episode of care structure; prescriptions were coded with the ICPC drug code. Data were collected for research purposes and cannot be considered representative for family practice in these countries. We derived comparable estimates for the United States using visit data from the National Ambulatory Care Survey (NAMCS), with specific emphasis on the contribution of family physicians. NAMCS data were mapped to the ICPC and the ICPC drug code, and Dutch, Polish, and Japanese data were directly standardized for the 1996 US population. Data on utilization, reasons for encounter, encounters per episode of care, new episodes of care, and prescriptions were compared. We also present World Health Organization and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development data on health care delivery, efficiency, expenditure, and health status for each country.

POPULATION: We included the following: from the Netherlands: 10 family physicians, 48.640 patient years, 1995-2000; from Japan: 6 family physicians, 17.082 patient years, 1996-1999; from Poland: 22 family physicians, 11.315 patient years, 1997-1999; and from the United States: NAMCS 1995-97 30 991 patient years 91395 visits (26% with a family physician).

RESULTS: We found important differences and striking similarities. Differences in the numbers of episodes and of encounters per patient per year were small compared with differences in utilization per episode of care, including diagnostic and therapeutic interventions. Substantial differences were found in prescribing antibiotics, oral contraceptives, cardiovascular medications, and gastrointestinal therapies. Prescribing behavior in the Netherlands and the United States was similar, while very different patterns were found in Japan and Poland. Similarities were much higher in patients’ reasons for encounter than in diagnoses. Only 35 groups of symptoms/complaints covered the top 30s in all databases, at the same time including 45% to 60% of all symptom/complaint reasons for encounter.

CONCLUSIONS: Even under very different conditions there was substantial overlap in the top 30 symptom/complaint reasons for encounter, incidence rates, and encounters per diagnosis in the 4 countries we studied. This striking resemblance supports the concept of the reason for encounter as a core element of the consultation with a family physician. Similarities between the databases are much better reflected by the way patients formulate their demand for care than in the diagnoses by the family physician. Patients from the US also see providers other than family physicians for common problems; it remains unclear whether a limited group brings most of their health problems to a family physician or whether most people visit a series of primary care physicians. Possibilities to further develop episode-oriented epidemiology in family practice have considerably increased with this study. The potential for comparative studies has also increased with the introduction of complete electronic patient records based on the documentation of episodes of care with the ICPC and with its mapping to International Classification of Diseases-10th revision (or the 9th revision clinical modification).

Internationally, family practice receives increasing emphasis. The World Organization of Family Doctors (WONCA) now has members from more than 80 countries, in several of which family practice has developed into a core element of health care delivery and a well-defined academic discipline. In the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Scandinavia and the Netherlands, the development of family practice has benefited from a health care policy that arranged for direct access for all, and for a gatekeeping function of the family physician that has also resulted in the availability of databases reflecting the distribution of morbidity in family practice populations.1-5 In the US, Japan and many European countries, however, the development of family practice is handicapped by a health care policy less favorable to the discipline. This has resulted in a paucity of information on the distribution of morbidity in the population.6-12

Primary care/family practice is characterized in the 1997 Institute of Medicine (IOM) definition as: “…the provision of integrated accessible health care services by physicians who are accountable for addressing a large majority of personal health care needs, developing a sustained partnership with patients and practicing in the context of family and community.”12 A particularly relevant unit of assessment for this definition is the episode of care, defined as a health problem from its first presentation to a health care provider till the last encounter for it.12-14 This implies that morbidity and mortality rates are insufficient to characterize the content of health care; one must include the patient’s perspective during episodes of illness and episodes of care.7