Continuity is a long-established and fiercely-defended value in primary care. Traditional continuity, based on a one-to-one doctor-patient relationship, has declined in recent years. Contemporary general practice is organisationally and technically complex, with multiple staff roles and technologies supporting patient access (e.g. electronic and telephone triage) and clinical encounters (e.g. telephone, video and electronic consultations). Re-evaluation of continuity’s relational, organisational, socio-technical and professional characteristics is therefore timely. We developed theory in parallel with collecting and analysing data from case studies of 11 UK general practices followed from 2021-2023 as they introduced (or chose not to introduce) remote and digital services. We used strategic, immersive ethnography, interviews, and material analysis of technologies (e.g. digital walk-throughs).

Continuity was almost universally valued but differently defined across practices. It was invariably situated and effortful, influenced by the locality, organisation, technical infrastructure, wider system and the values and ways of working of participating actors, and often requiring articulation and ‘tinkering’ by staff. Remote and digital modalities provided opportunities for extending continuity across time and space and for achieving—to a greater or lesser extent— continuity of digital records and shared understandings of a patient and illness episode across the clinical team. Delivering continuity for the most vulnerable patients was sometimes labour-intensive and required one-off adaptations.

Building on earlier work by Haggerty et al, we propose a novel ontology of four analytically distinct but empirically overlapping kinds of continuity—of the therapeutic relationship (based on psychodynamic and narrative paradigms), of the illness episode (biomedical-interpretive paradigm), of distributed work (sociotechnical paradigm), and of the practice’s commitment to a community (political economy and ethics of care paradigm). This ontology allowed us to theorise and critique successes (continuity achieved) and failures (breaches of continuity and fragmentation of care) in
our dataset.

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