Revisiting the four core functions (4Cs) of primary care: Operational definitions and complexities


Background: The four primary care (PC) core functions (the '4Cs', ie, first contact, comprehensiveness, coordination and continuity) are essential for good quality primary healthcare and their achievement leads to lower costs, less inequality and better population health. However, their broad definitions have led to variations in their assessment, in the innovations implemented to improve these functions and ultimately in their performance. Objectives: To update and operationalise the 4Cs' definitions by using a literature review and analysis of enhancement strategies, and to identify innovations that may lead to their enhancement. Methods: Narrative, descriptive analysis of the 4Cs definitions, coming from PC international reports and organisations, to identify measurable features for each of these functions. Additionally, we performed an electronic search and analysis of enhancement strategies to improve these four Cs, to explore how the 4Cs inter-relate. Results: Specific operational elements for first contact include modality of contact, and conditions for which PC should be approached; for comprehensiveness, scope of services and spectrum of population needs; for coordination, links between PC and higher levels of care and social/community-based services, and workforce managing transitions and for continuity, type, level and context of continuity. Several innovations like enrolment, digital health technologies and new or enhanced PC provider's roles, simultaneously influenced two or more of the 4Cs. Conclusion: Providing clear, well-defined operational elements for these 4Cs to measure their achievement and improve the way they function, and identifying the complex network of interactions among them, should contribute to the field in a way that supports efforts at practice innovation to optimise the processes and outcomes in PC.






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Publication Info

Jimenez, Geronimo, David Matchar, Gerald Choon Huat Koh, Shilpa Tyagi, Rianne MJJ van der Kleij, Niels H Chavannes and Josip Car (2021). Revisiting the four core functions (4Cs) of primary care: Operational definitions and complexities. Primary Health Care Research and Development, 22. 10.1017/S1463423621000669 Retrieved from

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David Bruce Matchar

Professor of Medicine

My research relates to clinical practice improvement - from the development of clinical policies to their implementation in real world clinical settings. Most recently my major content focus has been cerebrovascular disease. Other major clinical areas in which I work include the range of disabling neurological conditions, cardiovascular disease, and cancer prevention.
Notable features of my work are: (1) reliance on analytic strategies such as meta-analysis, simulation, decision analysis and cost-effectiveness analysis; (2) a balancing of methodological rigor the needs of medical professionals; and (3) dependence on interdisciplinary groups of experts.
This approach is best illustrated by the Stroke Prevention Patient Outcome Research Team (PORT), for which I served as principal investigator. Funded by the AHCPR, the PORT involved 35 investigators at 13 institutions. The Stroke PORT has been highly productive and has led to a stroke prevention project funded as a public/private partnership by the AHCPR and DuPont Pharma, the Managing Anticoagulation Services Trial (MAST). MAST is a practice improvement trial in 6 managed care organizations, focussing on optimizing anticoagulation for individuals with atrial fibrillation.
I serve as consultant in the general area of analytic strategies for clinical policy development, as well as for specific projects related to stroke (e.g., acute stroke treatment, management of atrial fibrillation, and use of carotid endarterectomy.) I have worked with AHCPR (now AHRQ), ACP, AHA, AAN, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, NSA, WHO, and several pharmaceutical companies.
Key Words: clinical policy, disease management, stroke, decision analysis, clinical guidelines

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