© Ontario Science Table, 2022. Image taken from Part 3 of the Brief on Primary Care

On October 3, the Ontario Science Table (OST) released its final report, a three-part brief about the importance of Primary Health Care (PHC) in the pandemic and what we can learn from it.

Part 1 examines the essential role PHC played in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, the one it continues to play in managing the fallout from the pandemic, and the one it will play in helping ensure we’re prepared for the next public health emergency.

Part 2 describes the great challenge this presents to PHC providers and teams as they are being relied upon to deliver much more care without additional support.

Part 3 presents a deeper examination of five key lessons learned and shared in the first two parts.

As soon as the pandemic started, PHC made a rapid transition to virtual and off-site care; participated in testing, treatment, and wraparound services for COVID-19; and provided education and support to local communities to increase vaccine uptake. As the pandemic persisted, they continued doing all this while striving to catch up with missed or delayed care. Now, as we move into an endemic state, this work continues while teams cope with an increased burden of illness in the population. Team-based PHC organizations, in particular, have led in the pandemic response and recovery efforts because they have the needed structural flexibility, knowledge, and population health focus. However, this additional care is increasingly being integrated into everyday practice without a corresponding increase in funding.

The pandemic has exacerbated a pre-existing crisis in healthcare human resources. This harms the capacity of PHC to meet the needs of their communities equitably and accessibly and to prepare for the next public health emergency. Primary health care is the foundation of our health system, and we urgently need funding and infrastructure to support team-based primary health care models; to address COVID-related issues without sacrificing care in other areas; to spread and sustain what we learned during the pandemic; to share meaningful population health data; and to leverage the long-standing relationships we have with clients and communities, so we can keep improving population health and contributing to system sustainability.