The Dutch study, published in the British Journal of General Practice, looked at more than 1,700 patients aged over 60, and divided them into four groups depending on their continuity of primary care, with the group considered to have greatest continuity of care having the same GP for at least six years.
Patients in the lowest continuity of care category were found to have a 20% greater risk of mortality than those receiving the most continuous primary care.
Of the 759 patients who were still alive for the length of the 17-year study, 33.1% still had the same GP.
The authors, from Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, said that while continuity of care in primary care is a widely accepted principle, the evidence for its benefit has been weak.
GP continuity of care
The researchers wrote: 'The present study demonstrates that low continuity of care in general practice is associated with a higher risk of mortality, strengthening the case for encouragement of continuity of care.
'The theoretical framework of continuity of care, however, is complicated and many components are involved — at patient, doctor, and system level. Further research should acknowledge this complexity and measure the involved components separately,50 to differentiate the good and adverse effects of continuity of care.'
GPC deputy chairman Dr Richard Vautrey, said: ‘When the GPC did their last major survey of the profession, continuity of care was seen as the most essential element of general practice, backed by 80% of the thousands of responding GPs.
‘This is for good reason, as it makes a huge difference for patients, in particular those with complex needs. While successive governments have had a sometimes blinkered focus on rapid access and more recently seven-day access, if we do this at the expense of continuity of care then not only will our patients will lose out but it will also lead to general practice being a less, not more, attractive career to future GPs.’