Open Access Research article

Setting priorities in primary health care - on whose conditions? A questionnaire study

Eva Arvidsson12*, Malin André34, Lars Borgquist4, David Andersson5 and Per Carlsson1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Medical and Health Sciences, National Centre for Priority Setting in Health Care, Linköping University, Linköping, Sweden

2 Department of Primary Health Care, County Council of Kalmar, Kalmar, Sweden

3 Department of Public Health and Caring Sciences - Family Medicine and Preventive Medicine, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden

4 Department of Medical and Health Sciences, Family Medicine, Linköping University, Linköping, Sweden

5 Department of Management and Engineering, Division of Economics, Linköping University, Linköping, Sweden

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Family Practice 2012, 13:114  doi:10.1186/1471-2296-13-114

Published: 26 November 2012



In Sweden three key criteria are used for priority setting: severity of the health condition; patient benefit; and cost-effectiveness. They are derived from the ethical principles established by the Swedish parliament 1997 but have been used only to a limited extent in primary care. The aim of this study was to describe and analyse: 1) GPs', nurses', and patients' prioritising in routine primary care 2) The association between the three key priority setting criteria and the overall priority assigned by the GPs and nurses to individual patients.


Paired questionnaires were distributed to all patients and the GPs or nurses they had contact with during a 2-week period at four health centres in Sweden. The staff registered the health conditions or health problem, and the planned intervention. Then they estimated the severity of the health condition, the expected patient benefit, and the cost-effectiveness of the planned intervention. Both the staff and the patients reported their overall prioritisation of the patient. In total, 1851 paired questionnaires were collected.


Compared to the medical staff, the patients assigned relatively higher priority to acute/minor conditions than to preventive check-ups for chronic conditions. Severity of the health condition was the priority setting criterion that had the strongest association with the overall priority for the staff as a whole, but for the GPs it was cost-effectiveness.


The challenge for primary care providers is to balance the patients' demands with medical needs and cost-effectiveness. Transparent priority setting in primary care might contribute to a greater consensus between GPs and nurses on how to use the key priority setting criteria.