Primary Health Care as a Foundation for Strengthening Health Systems in Low- and Middle-Income Countries
KEY WORDS: global health; primary care; health policy; measurement.
J Gen Intern Med
Primary Health Care as a Foundation for Strengthening Health Systems in Low- and Middle-Income Countries
Asaf Bitton 1 2
Hannah L. Ratcliffe
Jeremy H. Veillard 0
Daniel H. Kress 5
Shannon Barkley 4
Federica Secci 0
Chelsea Taylor 3
Jaime Bayona 0
Hong Wang 5
Gina Lagomarsino 3
Lisa R. Hirschhorn 1 2
0 The World Bank Group , Washington, DC , USA
1 Harvard Medical School , Boston, MA , USA
2 Ariadne Labs, Brigham and Women's Hospital and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health , Boston, MA , USA
3 Results for Development Institute , Washington, DC , USA
4 World Health Organization , Geneva , Switzerland
5 The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation , Seattle, WA , USA
Primary health care (PHC) has been recognized as a core component of effective health systems since the early part of the twentieth century. However, despite notable progress, there remains a large gap between what individuals and communities need, and the quality and effectiveness of care delivered. The Primary Health Care Performance Initiative (PHCPI) was established by an international consortium to catalyze improvements in PHC delivery and outcomes in low- and middle-income countries through better measurement and sharing of effective models and practices. PHCPI has developed a framework to illustrate the relationship between key financing, workforce, and supply inputs, and core primary health care functions of first-contact accessibility, comprehensiveness, coordination, continuity, and person-centeredness. The framework provides guidance for more effective assessment of current strengths and gaps in PHC delivery through a core set of 25 key indicators (BVital Signs^). Emerging best practices that foster high-performing PHC system development are being codified and shared around low- and high-income countries. These measurement and improvement approaches provide countries and implementers with tools to assess the current state of their PHC delivery system and to identify where crosscountry learning can accelerate improvements in PHC quality and effectiveness.
In 1920, the British government commissioned a report to
suggest ways to structure their expanding health system
investments. The commission chairman, Lord Bertrand
Dawson, borrowing from previous experience in education,
proposed three hierarchical levels of care locations (primary,
secondary, tertiary). He and the commission first identified
Bprimary care^ as the most basic level of a structured health
system (akin to primary or elementary education), concerned
with caring for simple, common problems in outpatient
settings (Fig. 1).1
Since that time, a profound evolution has occurred
toward understanding the central role of primary health
care (PHC) in ensuring individual and population health,
transforming PHC from responsibility for the
lowestlevel basic tasks toward becoming the heart of an
integrated, people-centered system of care. The development
of community-oriented primary care in South Africa,
India, and the US in the mid-twentieth century showed
the early potential of strong PHC systems to produce
promising population health results, but these vanguard
programs were not met with uniform support for a
common conceptual understanding or even shared
definition of PHC. Competing notions varied from quite
broad definitions of primary health care for all in the
Alma-Ata Declaration of 1978, to the narrower
definitions of selective primary care that followed in the
1980s, designed to address major causes of death in
lower-resource settings at that time.1, 2
With converging forces including broader population
demand for higher-quality services, rising health costs,
and emergence of non-communicable diseases, health
system leaders across the globe are increasingly recognizing
the central importance of strengthening PHC to meet these
evolving needs (Fig. 1).3 This is particularly true in
lowand middle-income countries (LMIC) in the midst of
providing care for the Bdouble burden^ of communicable
and non-communicable disease, while transitioning from
external donor assistance to sustainable domestic funding.
However, a common understanding of how strong PHC
systems are produced, and how to iteratively improve
them, remains elusive. In this perspective, we introduce
a framework designed to better understand if and how
PHC is working in LMIC, and where lessons can be
learned and spread globally.
TARGETING DISEASES, NOT PEOPLE
Seeking to capitalize on the influx of global health funding, in
2000, 189 countries ratified the Millennium Development
Goals, initiating an unprecedented global effort to promote
health and well-being across LMIC, largely through Bvertical^
programs focused on specific disease or care delivery areas.
Since the conclusion of the Millennium Development Goals in
2015, it has become clear that this effort led to tremendous
gains in health: over 15 years, deaths in children under 5 years
of age declined by more than 50 %, maternal mortality
dropped by 45 %, new HIV infections fell by 40 %, and over
6.2 million malaria-related deaths were prevented.4 Despite
this remarkable progress, unacceptable gaps in health
outcomes and patient needs remain. Every day there are still
16,000 deaths among children under 5, and 830 women die
from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth.4,
5 The Millennium Development Goals’ vertical approach
toward healthcare has, in many countries, created fragmented,
inefficient, often parallel health systems focused on treating
specific diseases rather than promoting holistic health and
GOING BEYOND VERTICAL PROGRAMS, AND
PRIORITIZING USER-CENTERED APPROACHES
To build upon the successes of the Millennium Development
Goals, in 2015, 193 countries adopted the Sustainable
Development Goals, to define the next iteration of worldwide
development targets for the year 2030.6 The health-related
Sustainable Development Goal is to achieve universal health
coverage, defined as Bfinancial risk protection, access to
quality essential health-care services and access to safe, effective,
quality and affordable essential medicines and vaccines for
all.^4 Strong PHC is the foundation of efficient, equitable, and
resilient health systems, and can address the majority of care
needs for the majority of people, regardless of where they
live.7, 8 Achieving quality universal health coverage in a
sustainable way will require moving beyond vertical
programming, toward integrated health systems, in large part by
prioritizing primary health care.7–9
HOW BIG IS THE GAP?
Unfortunately, in many LMIC, PHC capacity is lacking, and
health outcomes are poor. Across the world, these gaps are
being exposed and exacerbated by the increasing burden of
non-communicable diseases and concomitant increases in care
complexity.10 Acute threats also put a spotlight on weak PHC
systems, as was apparent during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in
West Africa. The crisis highlighted not only the severe
shortage of healthcare infrastructure, human resources, and
essential supplies in affected countries, but also poor access to and
low quality of care, and a consequent lack of trust and
connection between systems and the populations they serve.10
Even in the absence of acute threats, recent illustrative
studies on the quality of routine PHC in LMIC show that it
is far from adequate, with wide variation between and within
regions.11 A large study in northern India found that providers
on average spent 3.6 min with a patient, completing only
onethird of recommended history and physical exams. Diagnoses
were provided in only 36 % of cases, and only 12 % of these
were correct. Harmful or unnecessary treatments were more
common than correct ones (42 % vs. 30 %).12 Similarly poor
results were found in Tanzania, Paraguay, and Indonesia.11 In
China, clinicians completed only 18 % of items on a
recommended checklist, provided a correct diagnosis in just 26 % of
patients, and dispensed unnecessary or harmful medications in
nearly 70 % of interactions.13 In Afghanistan, direct
observations revealed gaps not just in technical quality, but also
communication and time spent with patients.14 The underlying
causes of these gaps encompass a range of factors, including
inadequate training, low effort, misaligned incentives, poor
motivation, and unavailability of supplies.12
BETTER PHC THROUGH BETTER UNDERSTANDING,
MEASUREMENT, AND IMPROVEMENT
In 2015, the World Health Organization, The World Bank
Group, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—in
partnership with Ariadne Labs and Results for
Development—launched the Primary Health Care Performance Initiative
(PHCPI), to catalyze improvements in PHC in LMIC through
better measurement and sharing of effective practices.3 PHCPI
activities are derived from a Conceptual Framework for PHC
in LMIC (Fig. 2). This framework describes the components
necessary for building strong PHC systems, informs better
assessment, and identifies modifiable gaps in performance.
A CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK FOR GLOBAL PHC:
BUILDING ON WHAT WE KNOW WORKS IN THE
The PHCPI framework was developed through an extensive
literature review, global stakeholder consultations with leading
experts, advocates, and policymakers, and a review of over 40
existing health systems frameworks.15 This process revealed
that most frameworks used in LMIC prioritize health systems
inputs such as funds, human resources, supplies, facilities, and
information systems, with less attention to the interactions
between providers, families, communities, and patients and
the quality of services they provide and receive.
Building off of widely known frameworks,16–19 the PHCPI
framework offers a stronger emphasis on people- and
community-centered care, supply and demand functions, and
integrated service delivery through effective organization and
management. The PHCPI framework focuses not just on the
traditional system inputs needed to achieve good health
outcomes, but also on identifying and mapping the key functions
of service delivery that underlie outcome achievement.
The heart of the framework is the Service Delivery domain
that captures the interaction of systems and supplies with
providers and patients at the moment of care delivery. The
first two sub-domains describe aspects of population health
management such as local priority setting, community
engagement, empanelment, and proactive outreach, as well as
teambased organization, facility management capability,
information system use, and performance measurement. Together,
these sub-domains create the pre-conditions for whether
patients have meaningful financial and geographic access to
timely care (sub-domain 3) and whether competent and
motivated providers are present to deliver safe, respectful care
(sub-domain 4). The fifth sub-domain—high-quality
PHC—includes the classic primary health care functions
described by Barbara Starfield and others, including first-contact
accessibility, comprehensiveness, coordination, and
continuity.20 In addition, the person-centeredness function captures
important and often lacking interpersonal and relational
dimensions of primary health care, including trust, respect,
communication, and improved patient self-management and
The successful combination of systems, inputs, and service
delivery contribute to PHC Outputs. Importantly, this domain
is focused not just on crude coverage of services, but on
effective coverage of high-quality services focused on both
prevention and treatment. The final domain, Outcomes, is
influenced by all preceding domains. Drawing from the
Universal Health Coverage Monitoring Framework21 and the
Global Reference List of 100 Core Health Indicators,22 the
domain is focused on morbidity and mortality, as well as key
outcomes of people-centered care such as responsiveness to
people, equity, efficiency, and resilient health systems. The
overall framework explicitly recognizes that PHC systems lie
within wider political, cultural, demographic, and
socioeconomic contexts that play a critical role in determining their
After developing the conceptual framework, PHCPI partners
identified a set of 25 key performance indicators—BVital
Signs^—from globally available data that could be used at
the national level to assess the performance of PHC systems,
identify gaps in need of improvement, and allow countries to
benchmark themselves across their region, income peer group,
or other relevant comparisons (Table 1). For example, the Vital
Signs measure continuity of care in three vertical areas:
antenatal care, childhood vaccination, and TB treatment. These
indicators can be compared within and across countries to
understand common challenges and positive outliers, as
shown in Figure 3. This type of analysis shows both that
continuity of care varies widely across countries, and that
these three measures of continuity of care can vary widely
within countries. The latter insight highlights the importance
of strong PHC systems in providing a foundation for vertical
programs to build upon in order to provide continuity for all
users of the healthcare system, not just some.
The PHCPI Vital Signs indicate that much work is needed
to strengthen PHC measurement across LMIC. Data
availability is a clear problem: of 135 LMIC, only one—Uganda—has
data available for all 25 Vital Signs. Furthermore, many
subdomains of the PHCPI Conceptual Framework, particularly
within the Service Delivery domain, are not represented by
any Vital Signs, reflecting a lack of accepted, reliable, and
globally comparable indicators for measuring the core
Consistent with other work on PHC delivery in LMIC,10, 12,
23 the Vital Signs also demonstrate that performance across
most domains is weak in many LMIC, suggesting ample
targets for improvement in order to meet the Sustainable
At its core, the PHCPI framework is an explication of the
relationship between common global health areas of
focus—such as accessibility and availability of services—and
Starfield’s classic primary health care functions.20 An emerging
body of work suggests that these functions resonate in both
low- and high-income country settings.24 Focusing health
system development on the production of these functions in
LMIC settings (as opposed to simply meeting input targets) is
critical for accelerating improvement in primary health care
HOW DO WE ASSESS PHC CARE DELIVERY SYSTEMS?
tions of a primary health care system.
Do national policies reflect the importance of PHC, promote high standards,
and involve stakeholders from all sectors?
Is primary health care adequately funded to ensure access, provide protection
against catastrophic expenditures, and ensure equitable use of resources?
Is the delivery of PHC flexible enough to adjust to and best serve the needs
of the population?
Are essential drugs, vaccines, consumables, and equipment available when needed?
Are there enough health facilities to serve the population, and are they appropriately
Are health facilities appropriately linked to information systems, including
system hardware and records?
Is there sufficient staff and an appropriate combination of skills in PHC services?
Are there sufficient funds available at the facility level to cover recurrent and fixed
Are local populations engaged in the design and delivery of health services to ensure
that their needs and priorities are met?
Are PHC facilities organized and managed to promote team-based care provision,
use of information systems, support staff, and performance measurement
and management to drive continuous improvement?
Do patients have financial, geographic, and timely access to PHC facilities?
Are the staff of primary care facilities present and competent, and motivated
to provide safe and respectful care?
Are PHC services high quality, meeting peoples’ needs, and connected to other
parts of the health system?
Does the PHC system offer high-quality services across the lifespan?
Does PHC reduce the number of deaths and improve health?
Does the PHC system respond quickly to the needs of the population?
Are health outcomes equitably distributed across society, by geography,
education, and occupation?
Are resources used optimally to improve health outcomes?
Is the PHC system able to continuously deliver health care, regardless
of political or environmental instability?
and moving from vertical programming toward integrated
This lens of primary care functions provides the opportunity
for shared learning between health systems in various stages of
development. For example, high-performing primary care
systems in high-income countries feature core components
of effective management and team-based models of delivery
such as proactive population management and risk-stratified
care management.25 These features can be targeted in
countries with transitioning burdens of disease that require a
strong focus on chronic disease management and patient/
community engagement. Similarly, high-income countries
can learn from successful examples of LMIC PHC models
that feature deep community participation and engagement
using community health worker models to reduce burdens of
disease in an efficient manner.26 For example, Brazil’s Family
Health teams and Costa Rica’s EBAIS model highlight the
utility of using multidisciplinary teams, including community
health workers, to improve health outcomes equitably. In
Estonia and Cuba, a focus on increasing access to care through
a better trained and widely distributed PHC workforce ensures
that primary health care is the first point of contact, while
Turkey and Thailand highlight the benefits of reformed
financing mechanisms to ensure consistent universal financial
coverage for PHC. PHCPI is profiling innovative and successful
strategies such as these to build a repository of BPromising
Practices^ for improving PHC performance.3 These bright
spots of PHC provide useful lessons to countries as they
embark on the path toward achieving universal health
coverage. PHCPI is also working with a set of interested countries to
catalyze PHC development efforts by making data on existing
performance more available and useful at local levels, and
linking it to a set of proven improvement pathways.
As all countries increasingly grapple with the challenges of
providing high-quality, people-centered services at an
affordable cost, primary health care is becoming a shared common
focus. We present a framework for defined, detailed, and
measurable primary health care performance that can be used
by stakeholders at the global, national, and local levels to drive
iterative improvement. Though the contexts within which they
are produced vary widely, we propose that core functions of
primary health care are universal across the world. The extent
to which a health system produces services that are accessible
at the point of first contact, continuous, coordinated,
comprehensive, and people-centered is directly linked to the ability to
produce intended outcomes. Successful progress requires
sustained leadership focus and investment in measuring these key
PHC domains, and making this data transparent and relevant
particularly at the front lines of service delivery. Countries
have an opportunity and a responsibility to go beyond
antiquated notions of Blevels^ of care, simplified packages of care,
or overly broad but under-defined concepts of primary health
care, to move toward comprehensive, coordinated care that
puts people and their needs at the center.
Acknowledgments: Funding for the Primary Health Care
Performance Initiative is provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
We acknowledge current and past members of the PHCPI working
group for all of their efforts in moving the work forward, as well as the
many stakeholders consulted in the development of the initiative so
Corresponding Author: Asaf Bitton, MD MPH; Ariadne
LabsBrigham and Women’s Hospital and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of
Public Health, 401 Park Drive, Third Floor East, Boston, MA 02215,
USA (e-mail: ).
Compliance with Ethical Standards:
Conflict of Interest: The authors declare that they do not have a
conflict of interest.
Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://
creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted
use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give
appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a
link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were
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