Open Access Research article

The relationship between number of primary health care visits and hospitalisations: evidence from linked clinic and hospital data for remote Indigenous Australians

Yuejen Zhao1*, Jo Wright1, Steven Guthridge1 and Paul Lawton2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Health, PO Box 40596, Casaurina, NT 0811, Australia

2 Menzies School of Health Research, PO Box 41096, Casaurina, NT 0811, Australia

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BMC Health Services Research 2013, 13:466  doi:10.1186/1472-6963-13-466

Published: 6 November 2013



Primary health care (PHC) is widely regarded as essential for preventing and treating ill health. However, the evidence on whether improved PHC reduces hospitalisations has been mixed. This study examines the relationship between PHC and hospital inpatient care in a population with high health need, high rates of hospitalisation and relatively poor PHC access.


The cross-sectional study used linked individual level PHC visit and hospitalisation data for 52 739 Indigenous residents from 54 remote communities in the Northern Territory of Australia between 1 July 2007 and 30 June 2011. The association between PHC visits and hospitalisations was modelled using simple and spline quadratic regression for key demographics and disease groups including potentially avoidable hospitalisations.


At the aggregate level, the average annual number of PHC visits per person had a U-shaped association with hospitalisations. For all conditions combined, there was an inverse association between PHC visits and hospitalisations for people with less than four clinic visits per year, but a positive association for those visiting the clinic four times or more. For patients with diabetes, ischaemic heart disease or renal disease, the minimum level of hospitalisation was found when there was 20–30 PHC visits a year, and for children with otitis media and dental conditions, 5–8 visits a year.


The results of this study demonstrate a U-shape relationship between PHC visits and hospitalisations. Under the conditions of remote Indigenous Australians, there may be an optimal level of PHC at which hospitalisations are at a minimum. The authors propose that the effectiveness of a health system may hinge on a refined balance, rather than a straight-line relationship between primary health care and tertiary care.

Access; Acute inpatient care; Administrative data uses; Primary care; Rural health