Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate

Continuity of care: a multidisciplinary review

BMJ 2003; 327 doi: (Published 20 November 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;327:1219
  1. Jeannie L Haggerty (, assistant professor1,
  2. Robert J Reid, assistant professor2,
  3. George K Freeman, professor of general practice3,
  4. Barbara H Starfield, university distinguished professor4,
  5. Carol E Adair, adjunct assistant professor5,
  6. Rachael McKendry, research assistant2
  1. 1Département de Médecine Familiale, Université de Montréal, Hôpital Notre-Dame Z8910, 1560 Sherbrooke East, Montréal, QC, Canada H2L 4M1
  2. 2Centre for Health Services and Policy Research, Vancouver, BC, Canada V6T 1W6
  3. 3Centre for Primary Care and Social Medicine, Imperial College of Science, Medicine, Technology, London W6 8RP
  4. 4Department of Health Policy and Management, School of Hygiene and Public Health, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD 21205, USA
  5. 5Departments of Community Health Sciences and Psychiatry, University of Alberta, Calgary, AB, Canada T2N 4N1
  1. Correspondence to: J L Haggerty
  • Accepted 2 September 2003

The concept—and reality—of continuity of care crosses disciplinary and organisational boundaries. The common definitions provided here should help healthcare providers evaluate continuity more rigorously and improve communication

Patients are increasingly seen by an array of providers in a wide variety of organisations and places, raising concerns about fragmentation of care. Policy reports and charters worldwide urge a concerted effort to enhance continuity,13 but efforts to describe the problem or formulate solutions are complicated by the lack of consensus on the definition of continuity. To add to the confusion, other terms such as continuum of care, coordination of care, discharge planning, case management, integration of services, and seamless care are often used synonymously. This synthesis was commissioned by three Canadian health services policy and research bodies. The aim was to develop a common understanding of the concept of continuity as a basis for valid and reliable measurement of practice in different settings.

Assessing the literature

We searched academic and policy literature for documents in which the principal focus was continuity of patient care or continuity. We searched electronic databases (Medline, HealthSTAR, Embase, CINAHL, Current Contents, PsychINFO, AIDSLINE, CancerLit, Cochrane Library, Dissertation abstracts, Papers1st (conferences and paper abstracts), Web of Science, WorldCat) as well as web library catalogues, peer reviewed internet sites, internet search engines, and several in-house databases. The search included documents dated from 1966 to November 2001 written in English, French, or Spanish. The reviewers (RJR, JLH, RMcK) used a data abstraction form to summarise relevant documents from every health discipline, and all reviewers read key documents.

We presented the results of an initial review of 314 documents to participants of a workshop on continuity held in Vancouver in June 2001. We obtained structured feedback to a discussion paper, problem based scenarios, and expert presentations. Participants validated the common themes …

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