A participatory model of the paradox of primary care

Laura Homa, Johnie Rose, Peter S. Hovmand, Sarah T. Cherng, Rick L. Riolo, Alison Kraus, Anindita Biswas, Kelly Burgess, Heide Aungst, Kurt C. Stange, Kalanthe Brown, Margaret Brooks-Terry, Ellen Dec, Brigid Jackson, Jules Gilliam, George E. Kikano, Ann Reichsman, Debbie Schaadt, Jamie Hilfer, Christine TicknorCarl V. Tyler, Anna Van Der Meulen, Heather Ways, Richard F. Weinberger, Christine Williams

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Scopus citations


PURPOSE The paradox of primary care is the observation that primary care is associated with apparently low levels of evidence-based care for individual diseases, but systems based on primary care have healthier populations, use fewer resources, and have less health inequality. The purpose of this article is to explore, from a complex systems perspective, mechanisms that might account for the effects of primary care beyond disease-specific care. METHODS In an 8-session, participatory group model-building process, patient, caregiver, and primary care clinician community stakeholders worked with academic investigators to develop and refine an agent-based computer simulation model to test hypotheses about mechanisms by which features of primary care could affect health and health equity. RESULTS In the resulting model, patients are at risk for acute illness, acute lifechanging illness, chronic illness, and mental illness. Patients have changeable health behaviors and care-seeking tendencies that relate to their living in advantaged or disadvantaged neighborhoods. There are 2 types of care available to patients: primary and specialty. Primary care in the model is less effective than specialty care in treating single diseases, but it has the ability to treat multiple diseases at once. Primary care also can provide disease prevention visits, help patients improve their health behaviors, refer to specialty care, and develop relationships with patients that cause them to lower their threshold for seeking care. In a model run with primary care features turned off, primary care patients have poorer health. In a model run with all primary care features turned on, their conjoint effect leads to better population health for patients who seek primary care, with the primary care effect being particularly pronounced for patients who are disadvantaged and patients with multiple chronic conditions. Primary care leads to more total health care visits that are due to more disease prevention visits, but there are reduced illness visits among people in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Supplemental appendices provide a working version of the model and worksheets that allow readers to run their own experiments that vary model parameters. CONCLUSION This simulation model provides insights into possible mechanisms for the paradox of primary care and shows how participatory group model building can be used to evaluate hypotheses about the behavior of such complex systems as primary health care and population health.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)456-465
Number of pages10
JournalAnnals of Family Medicine
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 1 2015


  • Decision modeling
  • Economic models
  • Statistical models


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