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Association between continuity of care and subsequent diagnosis of multimorbidity in Ontario, Canada from 2001-2015: a retrospective cohort study

Chau E, Rosella LC, Mondor L, Wodchis WP. PLoS One. 2021; 16(3):e0245193. Epub 2021 Mar 11. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0245193


Background — Continuity of care is a well-recognized principle of the primary care discipline owing to its medical, interpersonal, and cost-saving benefits. Relationship continuity or the ongoing therapeutic relationship between a patient and their physician is a particularly desirable goal, but its role in preventing the accumulation of chronic conditions diagnoses in individuals is unknown. The objective of this study was to investigate the effect of continuity of care with physicians on the rate of incident multimorbidity diagnoses in patients with existing conditions.

Methods — This was a population-based, retrospective cohort study from 2001 to 2015 that focused on patients aged 18 to 105 years with at least one chronic condition (n = 166,665). Our primary exposure was relationship continuity of care with general practitioners and specialists measured using the Bice-Boxerman Continuity of Care Index (COCI). COCI was specified as a time-dependent exposure prior to the observation period. Our outcomes of interest were the time to diagnosis of a second, third, and fourth chronic condition estimated using cause-specific hazard regressions accounting for death as a competing risk.

Findings — We observed that patients with a single chronic condition and high continuity of care (>0.50) were diagnosed with a second chronic condition or multimorbidity at an 8% lower rate compared to individuals with low continuity (cause-specific hazard ratio (HR) 0.92 (95% Confidence Interval 0.90-0.93; p<0.0001) after adjusting for age, sex, income, place of residence, primary care enrolment, and the annual number of physician visits. Continuity remained protective as the degree of multimorbidity increased. Among patients with two conditions, the risk of diagnosis of a third chronic condition was also 8% lower for individuals with high continuity (HR 0.92; CI 0.90-0.94; p<0.0001). Patients with three conditions and high continuity had a 9% lower risk of diagnosis with a fourth condition (HR 0.91; CI 0.89-0.93; p<0.0001).

Conclusions — Continuity of care is a potentially modifiable health system factor that reduces the rate at which diagnoses of chronic conditions are made over time in patients with multimorbidity. Additional research is needed to explain the underlying mechanisms through which continuity is related to a protective effect and the clinical sequalae.

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