Background: The rapidly increasing costs of healthcare pose a major challenge to many governments, particularly those of developed countries. Health policy makers in some Western European countries have adopted the policy of a strong primary healthcare system, partly due to their recognition of the value of primary care medicine as a means to restrain costs while maintaining the quality and equity of healthcare services. In these countries there is a growing comprehension that the role of the family physician should be central, with responsibility for assessing the overall health needs of the individual, for coordination of medical care and, as the primary caregiver, for most of the individual’s medical problems in the framework of the family and the community.
Objectives: To describe primary care physicians in Israel from their own perception, health policy makers' opinion on the role PCPs should play, and patients' view on their role as gatekeepers.
Methods: The study was based on three research tools: a) a questionnaire mailed to a representative sample of all PCPs employed by the four sick funds in Israel in 1997, b) in-depth semi-structured interviews with key professionals and policy makers in the healthcare system, and c) a national telephone survey of a random representative sample of patients conducted in 1997.
Results: PCPs were asked to rank the importance of 12 primary functions. A total of 95% considered coordination of all patient care to be a very important function, but only 43% thought that weighing economic considerations in patient management is important, and 30.6% thought that 24 hour responsibility for patients is important. Also, 60% of PCPs have undergone specialty training and 94% thought that this training is essential. With regard to the policy makers, most preferred highly trained PCPs (board-certified family physicians, pediatricians and internists) and believed they should play a central role in the healthcare system, acting as coordinators, highly accessible and able to weigh cost considerations. Yet, half opposed a full gatekeeper model. They also felt that the general population has lost faith in PCPs, and that most have a low status and do not have adequate training. Regarding the patients’ viewpoint, 40% preferred that the PCP function as their “personal physician” coordinating all aspects of their care and fully in charge of their referrals; 30% preferred self-referral to sub-specialists, and 19% preferred their PCP to coordinate their care but wanted to be able to refer themselves to specialists.
Conclusions: In order to maintain high quality primary care, it is important that all PCPs have board certification. In addition, PCP training systems should emphasize preventive medicine, health promotion, health economy, and cost-effectiveness issues. Efforts should be make to render PCPs a central role in the healthcare system by gradually implementing the elements of the gatekeeper model through incentives rather than regulations.