No one category incorporates all the dimensions that people believe are denoted by the term, and this has resulted in a lack of clarity and consensus about the meaning of the term. A clue to the difficulty lies in an ambiguity of the word primary, as noted in a background paper prepared for this report by Safran (1994). If primary is understood in its sense of first in time or order, this leads to a relatively narrow concept of primary care as "first contact," the entry point, or ground floor of health care delivery. This meaning of primary can connote only a triage function in which patients are then passed on to a higher level of care. If, on the other hand, primary is understood in its sense of chief, principal, or main, then primary care is better understood as central and fundamental to health care. This latter idea of primary care supports the multidimensional view of primary care envisioned by this IOM committee.
This IOM committee thus reaffirms the importance of continuing to define primary care as multidimensional; it cannot be defined on the basis of a single dimension, as attractive as this might be for policymakers who formulate workforce policy and must decide who does or does not provide primary care. This exigency, faced by policymakers, has led to reliance on criteria based on, for example, residency training, care setting, or level of care (e.g., first contact). While fully acknowledging the need for a clearer sense of primary care to guide policymaking at the national and state level, the committee believes a careful but multidimensional view of primary care will permit a far richer discussion of organizational opportunities, professional development and satisfaction, health curricula reform, and improved health care than any single-dimension definition. Given this belief, the committee draws on an extensive literature that includes a number of key articles on primary care.
The notion of the primary physician providing continuing and comprehensive care was introduced very early. According to what became known as the Millis Commission report (1966), the primary physician
will serve as the primary medical resource and counselor to an individual or a family. When a patient needs hospitalization, the services of other medical specialists, or other medical or paramedical assistance, the primary physician will see that the necessary arrangements are made, giving such responsibility to others as is appropriate, and retaining his own continuing and comprehensive responsibility (Millis, 1966, p. 37).