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Primary care is essential to the effective health care of patients, and a broader community-wide public health focus is essential to improving the conditions in which patients live – thereby improving the overall health of the population.  Primary care and public health have shared goals and real potential for synergy – but significant barriers exist to collaboration. Primary care refers to doctors, nurses, physician assistants and other clinical care practitioners or the networks and organizations with which they are associated. Public health refers to state and local governmental public health agencies, including officials responsible for community-wide health programs, disease tracking and monitoring, epidemiology, and implementation of public health policies.

Primary care providers can treat diseases and provide preventive medical services, but alone cannot change conditions in the community that make a difference to the overall health prospects for their patients. Even in treating individual patients, they often do not have ready access to information on community-wide patterns of risk (e.g., clusters of patients, common sites of exposure, or absence of opportunities for exercise) that is relevant to the care of their patients.

Public policy goals (e.g. improving the population’s health; improving the performance of the health system; or reducing costs of medical care) cannot be achieved working patient by patient.  Rather, they require a system-wide and community-wide approach. Professionals working on public health projects are hindered by a lack of data that is timely and geographically specific enough to target programs.   

The Practical Playbook was developed by the de Beaumont Foundation, Duke University Department of Community and Family Medicine, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to foster collaboration between public health professionals and primary care providers. At the heart of that collaboration is the need for better, more effective ways to unlock and integrate health care data and community information and make it accessible to both public health and primary care.

Primary care providers work in environments rich with data that can be used to better understand the health of the local community. Public health professionals, supported by accurate data, can improve the health of local communities and support the work of primary care providers. Similarly, clinicians can treat an individual, but any community considerations are limited by a lack of social, school, and other information that could be integrated into an electronic health record system. By working together, these groups can exchange useful data and develop strategies to improve the health of all Americans.