Primary healthcare

This article is about an approach to providing universal health care. For the sector of the health care system, see Primary care.
Public ambulatory care facility in Maracay, Venezuela, providing primary care for ambulatory care sensitive conditions.

Primary healthcare (PHC) refers to "essential health care" that is based on scientifically sound and socially acceptable methods and technology, which make universal health care accessible to all individuals and families in a community. It is through their full participation and at a cost that the community and the country can afford to maintain at every stage of their development in the spirit of self-reliance and self-determination".[1] In other words, PHC is an approach to health beyond the traditional health care system that focuses on health equity-producing social policy.[2][3] PHC includes all areas that play a role in health, such as access to health services, environment and lifestyle.[4] Thus, primary healthcare and public health measures, taken together, may be considered as the cornerstones of universal health systems.[5]

This ideal model of healthcare was adopted in the declaration of the International Conference on Primary Health Care held in Alma Ata, Kazakhstan in 1978 (known as the "Alma Ata Declaration"), and became a core concept of the World Health Organization's goal of Health for all.[6] The Alma-Ata Conference mobilized a "Primary Health Care movement" of professionals and institutions, governments and civil society organizations, researchers and grassroots organizations that undertook to tackle the "politically, socially and economically unacceptable" health inequalities in all countries. There were many factors that inspired PHC; a prominent example is the Barefoot doctors of China.[4][7][8]

Goals and principles

A primary health care worker in Saudi Arabia, 2008

The ultimate goal of primary healthcare is the attainment of better health services for all. It is for this reason that World Health Organization (WHO), has identified five key elements to achieving this goal:[9]

Behind these elements lies a series of basic principles identified in the Alma Ata Declaration that should be formulated in national policies in order to launch and sustain PHC as part of a comprehensive health system and in coordination with other sectors:[1]

In sum, PHC recognizes that healthcare is not a short-lived intervention, but an ongoing process of improving people's lives and alleviating the underlying socioeconomic conditions that contribute to poor health. The principles link health and development, advocating political interventions, rather than passive acceptance of economic conditions.[4]


The hospital ship USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) in Manado, Indonesia, during Pacific Partnership 2012.

The primary health care approach has seen significant gains in health were applied even when adverse economic and political conditions prevail.[10]

Although the declaration made at the Alma-Ata conference deemed to be convincing and plausible in specifying goals to PHC and achieving more effective strategies, it generated numerous criticisms and reactions worldwide. Many argued the declaration did not have clear targets, was too broad, and was not attainable because of the costs and aid needed. As a result, PHC approaches have evolved in different contexts to account for disparities in resources and local priority health problems; this is alternatively called the Selective Primary Health Care (SPHC) approach.

Selective PHC

After the year 1978 Alta Alma Conference, the Rockefeller Foundation held a conference in 1979 at its Bellagio conference center in Italy to address several concerns. Here, the idea of Selective Primary Health Care was introduced as a strategy to complement comprehensive PHC. It was based on a paper by Julia Walsh and Kenneth S. Warren entitled “Selective Primary Health Care, an Interim Strategy for Disease Control in Developing Countries”.[11] This new framework advocated a more economical feasible approach to PHC by only targeting specific areas of health, and choosing the most effective treatment plan in terms of cost and effectiveness. One of the foremost examples of SPHC is "GOBI" (growth monitoring, oral rehydration, breastfeeding, and immunization),[4] focusing on combating the main diseases in developing nations.


Selective PHC approach consists of techniques known collectively under the acronym "GOBI-FFF". It focuses on severe population health problems in certain developing countries, where a few diseases are responsible for high rates of infant and child mortality. Health care planning is employed to see which diseases require most attention and, subsequently, which intervention can be most effectively applied as part of primary care in a least-cost method. The targets and effects of Selective PHC are specific and measurable. The approach aims to prevent most health and nutrition problems before they begin:[12][13]

PHC and population aging

Given global demographic trends, with the numbers of people age 60 and over expected to double by 2025, PHC approaches have taken into account the need for countries to address the consequences of population ageing. In particular, in the future the majority of older people will be living in developing countries that are often the least prepared to confront the challenges of rapidly ageing societies, including high risk of having at least one chronic non-communicable disease, such as diabetes and osteoporosis.[14] According to WHO, dealing with this increasing burden requires health promotion and disease prevention intervention at community level as well as disease management strategies within health care systems.

PHC and mental health

Some jurisdictions apply PHC principles in planning and managing their healthcare services for the detection, diagnosis and treatment of common mental health conditions at local clinics, and organizing the referral of more complicated mental health problems to more appropriate levels of mental health care.[15]

Background and controversies

Barefoot Doctors

The "Barefoot doctors" of China were an important inspiration for PHC because they illustrated the effectiveness of having a healthcare professional at the community level with community ties. Barefoot doctors were a diverse array of village health workers who lived in rural areas and received basic healthcare training. They stressed rural rather than urban healthcare, and preventive rather than curative services. They also provided a combination of western and traditional medicines. They had close community ties, were relatively low-cost, and perhaps most importantly they encouraged self-reliance through advocating prevention and hygiene practices.[4] The program experienced a massive expansion of rural medical services in China, with the number of barefoot doctors increasing dramatically between the early 1960s and the Cultural Revolution (1964-1976).


Although many countries were keen on the idea of primary healthcare after the Alma Ata conference, the Declaration itself was criticized for being too “idealistic” and “having an unrealistic time table”.[4] More specific approaches to prevent and control diseases - based on evidence of prevalence, morbidity, mortality and feasibility of control (cost-effectiveness) - were subsequently proposed. The best known model was the Selective PHC approach (described above). Selective PHC favoured short-term goals and targeted health investment, but it did not address the social causes of disease. As such, the SPHC approach has been criticized as not following Alma Ata's core principle of everyone's entitlement to healthcare and health system development.[4]

In Africa, the PHC system has been extended into isolated rural areas through construction of health posts and centers that offer basic maternal-child health, immunization, nutrition, first aid, and referral services.[16] Implementation of PHC is said to be affected after the introduction of structural adjustment programs by the World Bank.[16]

See also


  1. 1 2 World Health Organization. Declaration of Alma-Ata. Adopted at the International Conference on Primary Health Care, Alma-Ata, USSR, 6–12 September 1978.
  2. Starfield, Barbara. "Politics, primary healthcare and health." J Epidemiol Community Health 2011;65:653–655 doi:10.1136/jech.2009.102780
  3. Public Health Agency of Canada. About Primary Health Care. Accessed 12 July 2011.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Marcos, Cueto (2004). "The ORIGINS of Primary Health Care and SELECTIVE Primary Health Care.". Am J Public Health. 22. 94: 1864–1874. doi:10.2105/ajph.94.11.1864.
  5. White F. Primary health care and public health: foundations of universal health systems. Med Princ Pract 2015 doi:10.1159/000370197
  6. Secretariat, WHO. "International Conference on Primary Health Care, Alma-Ata: twenty-fifth anniversary" (PDF). Report by the Secretariat. WHO. Retrieved 28 March 2011.
  7. Bulletin of the World Health Organization (October 2008). "Consensus during the Cold War: back to Alma-Ata". World Health Organization.
  8. Bulletin of the World Health Organization (December 2008). "China's village doctors take great strides". World Health Organization.
  9. "Health topics: Primary health care". World Health Organisation. Retrieved 28 March 2011.
  10. Braveman, Paula; E. Tarimo (1994). Screening in Primary Health Care: Setting Priorities With Limited Resources. World Health Organization. p. 14. ISBN 9241544732. Retrieved 4 November 2012.
  11. Walsh, Julia A., and Kenneth S. Warren. 1980. Selective primary health care:An interim strategy for disease control in developing countries. Social Science & Medicine. Part C: Medical Economics 14 (2):145-163
  12. Rehydration Project. UNICEF's GOBI-FFF Programs. Accessed 16 June 2011.
  13. World Health Organization. World Health Report 2005, Chapter 5: Choosing Interventions to Reduce Specific Risks. Geneva, WHO Press.
  14. World Health Organization. Older people and Primary Health Care (PHC). Accessed 16 June 2011.
  15. Department of Health, Provincial Government of the Western Cape. Mental Health Primary Health Care (PHC) Services. Accessed 16 June 2011.
  16. 1 2 Pfeiffer, J. 2003. International NGOs and primary health care in Mozambique: the need for a new model of collaboration. Social Science & Medicine 56(4):725-738.

Further reading

External links

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