Building High-Performing Primary Care Systems: After a Decade of Policy Change, Is Canada “Walking the Talk?”

Early View Original Scholarship
Comparative Health Systems

Policy Points:

  • Considerable investments have been made to build high-performing primary care systems in Canada. However, little is known about the extent to which change has occurred over the last decade with implementing programs and policies across all 13 provincial and territorial jurisdictions.
  • There is significant variation in the degree of implementation of structural features of high-performing primary care systems across Canada. This study provides evidence on the state of primary care reform in Canada and offers insights into the opportunities based on changes that governments elsewhere have made to advance primary care transformation.

Context: Despite significant investments to transform primary care, Canada lags behind its peers in providing timely access to regular doctors or places of care, timely access to care, developing interprofessional teams, and communication across health care settings. This study examines changes over the last decade (2012 to 2021) in policies across 13 provincial and territorial jurisdictions that address the structural features of high-performing primary care systems.

Methods: A multiple comparative case study approach was used to explore changes in primary care delivery across 13 Canadian jurisdictions. Each case consisted of (1) qualitative interviews with academics, provincial health care leaders, and health care professionals and (2) a literature review of policies and innovations. Data for each case were thematically analyzed within and across cases, using 12 structural features of high-performing primary care systems to describe each case and assess changes over time.

Findings: The most significant changes include adopting electronic medical records, investments in quality improvement training and support, and developing interprofessional teams. Progress was more limited in implementing primary care governance mechanisms, system coordination, patient enrollment, and payment models. The rate of change was slowest for patient engagement, leadership development, performance measurement, research capacity, and systematic evaluation of innovation.

Conclusions: Progress toward building high-performing primary care systems in Canada has been slow and variable, with limited change in the organization and delivery of primary care. Canada’s experience can inform innovation internationally by demonstrating how preexisting policy legacies constrain the possibilities for widespread primary care reform, with progress less pronounced in the attributes that impact physician autonomy. To accelerate primary care transformation in Canada and abroad, a national strategy and performance measurement framework is needed based on meaningful engagement of patients and other stakeholders. This must be accompanied by targeted funding investments and building strong data infrastructure for performance measurement to support rigorous research.

Aggarwal M, Hutchison B, Abdelhalim R, Baker GR. Building High-Performing Primary Care Systems: After a Decade of Policy Change, Is Canada “Walking the Talk?” Milbank Q. 2023;101(4):0925.