Continuity of care in general practice, that is being able to see the same GP at each appointment, is linked with fewer hospital admissions for older patients with conditions that could be managed in primary care, finds new research published in the British Medical Journal.
Unplanned admissions relating to ambulatory care sensitive conditions - which includes long-term conditions such as asthma and diabetes, where good quality care should prevent flare-ups; acute conditions, such as gangrene, where timely care could stop the condition developing; and conditions preventable by vaccination, such as influenza and pneumonia - cost the NHS in England £1.42 billion in 2009/10.
The research, undertaken by The Health Foundation, looked at 230,472 anonymised records for patients aged 62-82 years who had experienced at least two contacts with a GP between April 2011 and March 2013.
It found that compared with patients with low continuity of care in general practice, those with medium continuity of care experienced 8.96 percent fewer admissions to hospital for such ambulatory care sensitive conditions, and those with high continuity of care experienced 12.49 percent fewer.
Controlling for patient characteristics, the researchers estimate that if patients saw their most frequently seen GP two more times out of every 10 consultations, this would be associated with a 6 percent decrease in admissions.
Also, there was greater evidence for a link between continuity of care and admissions among those with the highest levels of contacts with general practitioners, the study found.
According to the researchers, the findings suggest there is "opportunity to improve care and reduce hospital admissions among the highest users of healthcare", but they also stress that as the study is observational, it cannot determine "whether continuity is a component of high quality care that has a consequential effect on hospital admissions, or whether increased continuity of care and reduced hospital admissions are both outcomes of high quality care".
Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, said the study shows that continuity of care "can lead to both better health outcomes for patients, and reduced healthcare costs because of fewer hospital admissions".
"We know that continuity of care is highly valued by patients and GPs and our teams alike with 80 percent of UK family doctors deeming it one of the most essential components of general practice. Good continuity of care can be particularly beneficial to the growing number of patients who are living with multiple, long-term conditions."
"But delivering continuity of care is becoming increasingly difficult as GPs and our teams struggle to deal with increased patient demand, with fewer resources, and not enough GPs or practice staff. We desperately need the government to deliver the pledges in NHS England's GP Forward View to increase investment in general practice and significantly expand the GP workforce, so that family doctors and our teams can continue to deliver high quality patient care for years to come."