Email updates

Keep up to date with the latest news and content from BMC Family Practice and BioMed Central.

Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Describing the content of primary care: limitations of Canadian billing data

Alan Katz123*, Gayle Halas1, Michael Dillon14 and Jordan Sloshower1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Family Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

2 Manitoba Centre for Health Policy, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

3 Department of Community Health Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

4 Klinic Community Health Centre, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Family Practice 2012, 13:7  doi:10.1186/1471-2296-13-7

Published: 15 February 2012



Primary health care systems are designed to provide comprehensive patient care. However, the ICD 9 coding system used for billing purposes in Canada neither characterizes nor captures the scope of clinical practice or complexity of physician-patient interactions. This study aims to describe the content of primary care clinical encounters and examine the limitations of using administrative data to capture the content of these visits. Although a number of U.S studies have described the content of primary care encounters, this is the first Canadian study to do so.


Study-specific data collection forms were completed by 16 primary care physicians in community health and family practice clinics in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. The data collection forms were completed immediately following the patient encounter and included patient and visit characteristics, such as primary reason for visit, topics discussed, actions taken, degree of complexity as well as diagnosis and ICD-9 codes.


Data was collected for 760 patient encounters. The diagnostic codes often did not reflect the dominant topic of the visit or the topic requiring the most amount of time. Physicians often address multiple problems and provide numerous services thus increasing the complexity of care.


This is one of the first Canadian studies to critically analyze the content of primary care clinical encounters. The data allowed a greater understanding of primary care clinical encounters and attests to the deficiencies of singular ICD-9 coding which fails to capture the comprehensiveness and complexity of the primary care encounter. As primary care reform initiatives in the U.S and Canada attempt to transform the way family physicians deliver care, it becomes increasingly important that other tools for structuring primary care data are considered in order to help physicians, researchers and policy makers understand the breadth and complexity of primary care.

Primary care; ICD-9 code; Office visit; Topic; Action