Primary, Secondary And Tertiary Care: A Comprehensive Guide

Updated on: December 3, 2023
Photo of author
Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

The NHS is a complex network of healthcare services that cater to the diverse medical needs of the UK’s population.

At the core of this system lie three main levels of care: primary, secondary, and tertiary.

These levels serve as a foundation for organising and delivering the appropriate care to patients based on the severity and complexity of their health conditions.

In this article, I’m going to break down exactly what each level of care means, examples of services at each level and try to give you an idea of how a patient would move through the system.

Having worked as a doctor at every level of care in the UK, I’ll try and illustrate what can be a pretty confusing topic with some personal experiences.

What Are The Different Levels Of Patient Care?

In the NHS, patient care is categorised into three main levels: primary, secondary, and tertiary. Each level serves a specific purpose and addresses different healthcare needs of patients.

Here’s a quick overview of each before I explore them in a bit more detail later on:

Primary care is the first point of contact for patients and focuses on providing essential healthcare services. It includes general practitioners, dentists, opticians and community healthcare providers. Primary care aims to address common health concerns, offer preventative care, and manage chronic conditions.

Secondary care refers to specialised medical services provided by healthcare professionals who are typically the second contact with a patient after a referral from a primary care provider. These services are delivered by specialists such as cardiologists, dermatologists, and orthopaedic surgeons. Secondary care is often required when a patient needs further investigation, diagnosis, or treatment for a specific condition.

Tertiary care comprises highly specialised medical care provided to patients with complex, severe, or rare health conditions. This level of care requires advanced knowledge, technology, and facilities. Tertiary care is delivered by experts in particular fields such as oncology, neurosurgery, or organ transplantation. Patients usually access tertiary care after being referred by primary or secondary care providers.

Primary, Secondary And Tertiary Care Pixel Infographic

There’s also a further level of care that you may come across, quaternary care.

Quaternary care is a level of specialised medical care that goes beyond tertiary care. It is provided to patients with extremely complex and rare health conditions that require the most advanced knowledge, technology, and facilities available. Quaternary care is delivered by highly specialised experts in fields such as genetic medicine, experimental treatments, and cutting-edge research. Patients typically access quaternary care after being referred by tertiary care providers.

Although not strictly a level of care, communitycare is another aspect of the healthcare system that’s often forgotten.

It’s integral to the whole system running smoothly and allowing patients to step back down levels after they’ve accessed healthcare services. I’ll come back to it slightly later on in the article.

Primary Care

Primary care is the initial point of contact for individuals seeking healthcare services.

It serves as the “gatekeeper” for further medical attention, directing patients to the appropriate specialists when needed.

Primary care providers include general practitioners, dentists, opticians and pharmacists. They offer everyday healthcare services and are often the first point of contact for non-emergency situations.

Examples Of Primary Care Services

Primary care includes a range of services provided to address various health needs. Some examples are:

  • GP practices: GP practices manage common illnesses, such as colds, the flu, or infections and are generally the first doctor a patient will see in their healthcare journey.
  • Dental centres: Dentists can provide regular check-ups, screenings, and oral hygiene advice to their local population. They can manage the vast majority of dental presentations.
  • Opticians: Opticians monitor and treat eye conditions. This includes everything from prescription lenses for short-sightedness to the monitoring of chronic eye diseases.
  • Pharmacists: Pharmacists can provide health advice, treatment for common medical conditions and are responsible for providing regular medications to patients.

Roles And Responsibilities

Primary care providers carry out several roles and responsibilities to ensure the well-being of their patients. These include, but are not limited to:

  1. Establishing and maintaining a patient-provider relationship: primary care providers work closely with patients, building trust to facilitate long-term care and early detection of potential health issues.
  2. Coordinating healthcare services: When specialised care is needed, primary care doctors refer patients to the appropriate specialists and coordinate their care to ensure a seamless healthcare experience.
  3. Health education: Primary care providers play a crucial role in educating patients about their health and promoting healthy behaviours.
  4. Taking a holistic approach: primary care providers consider the full range of patients’ physical, emotional, and social well-being when assessing their health needs and developing treatment plans.

Secondary Care

Secondary care refers to the medical services provided by specialised healthcare professionals who generally attend to patients referred by their primary care providers (e.g. GPs) for further evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment.

In secondary care, patients receive a higher level of specialised care and expertise that is not available at the primary care level. It’s usually delivered in hospitals.

Examples Of Secondary Care Services

Secondary care encompasses a wide range of medical services and experts that can cater to various healthcare requirements. Some examples of secondary care services are:

  • Consultations with specialists: Patients may be referred to consult specialists in areas such as cardiology, dermatology, gastroenterology, or orthopaedics, among others.
  • Hospital admissions: Patients who require hospitalisation for further observations, tests, or treatments will receive secondary care.
  • Diagnostic tests: Secondary care services include more advanced tests and procedures such as X-rays, MRIs, CT scans, or endoscopies.
  • Surgical procedures: Minor and major surgeries conducted by surgeons specialised in their respective fields are part of secondary care services.
  • Rehabilitation services: Specialised rehabilitation services are essential to recovery from injury or big surgeries and form a significant part of secondary care.

Roles And Responsibilities

Within secondary care, numerous healthcare professionals have varying roles and responsibilities to ensure patients receive the specialised care and attention they need. These include:

  • Specialist doctors: These medical professionals have in-depth knowledge and expertise in specific areas of medicine and are responsible for diagnosing and treating patients referred by primary care providers.
  • Nurses: Secondary care nurses are responsible for managing patient care, administering medications, and assisting doctors with treatments and procedures.
  • Therapists: Therapists, such as physiotherapists and occupational therapists, provide vital support to patients during their recovery and rehabilitation period.
  • Radiologists: Professionals that specialise in diagnosing medical conditions using imaging techniques such as X-rays, MRIs, and ultrasounds.
  • Laboratory professionals: They play an essential role in analysing test results and providing accurate information for diagnoses and treatment plans.

In secondary care, a collaborative approach is crucial to ensure the best possible outcomes for patients.

Healthcare professionals must communicate and work closely with each other and with primary care providers to create tailored treatment plans that effectively address individual patient needs.

Tertiary Care

Tertiary care refers to highly specialised medical care provided to patients with severe, complex, or life-threatening conditions.

This level of care typically requires a high degree of expertise, advanced and sophisticated diagnostic and therapeutic equipment, and specialised healthcare facilities.

An organ transplant operation underway

Tertiary care is delivered in a hospital setting and usually entails a multidisciplinary approach to treatment.

Examples Of Tertiary Care Services

Tertiary care services encompass a wide range of medical specialties and interventions. Some examples include:

  • Cardiology: Specialist heart surgeries, including pacemaker implantation or valve replacements, generally require a tertiary centre
  • Oncology: Certain cancer treatments, including radiotherapy, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy may only be offered at tertiary centres
  • Neurosurgery: Neurosurgery isn’t offered at every hospital. Brain and spinal cord surgeries, such as craniotomies or laminectomies, require specialised centres.
  • Orthopaedics: Although orthopaedics is available at most secondary care centres, complex bone and joint surgeries, like spine fusion may require tertiary care.
  • Burn care: Specialised burn centres for patients with severe burn injuries are delivered at the tertiary care level, rather than just at any hospital.
  • Organ transplants: Heart, liver, kidney, lung, or pancreas transplants will all require tertiary care with surgeons experienced in transplant medicine.

Quaternary Care

Quaternary care is an advanced level of specialised healthcare, often involving experimental medicine or uncommon diagnostic or surgical procedures.

It is a rare extension of tertiary care, providing highly specialised services that are not widely accessed by the general population.

Examples Of Quaternary Care Services

  • Cutting-edge treatments: Quaternary care includes experimental treatments that are still in clinical trials. Patients with severe or life-threatening conditions may be considered for these novel treatment options.
  • Advanced procedures: Uncommon and complex surgical procedures, such as rare robotic-assisted surgery or separation of conjoined twins, are examples of quaternary care.
  • Specialised care centres: Medical facilities dedicated to the intensive treatment of specific health conditions, such as severe burns or traumatic brain injuries, are part of quaternary care.
  • Highly specialised medical fields: Quaternary care services may be offered in areas like organ transplantation, neurosurgery, and certain cancer treatments.

Roles And Responsibilities

Quaternary care services are delivered by a team of highly skilled and specialised healthcare professionals. Some of the roles involved in the provision of these services include:

  • Specialised physicians: Doctors who are experts in a specific field of medicine and have extensive experience or training in treating complex and rare health conditions.
  • Research teams: Professionals who contribute to the development of experimental treatments and conduct clinical trials to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of these therapies.
  • Advanced medical technologies: Quaternary care often involves the use of cutting-edge medical devices and technologies, such as advanced imaging equipment, robotic surgical systems, and state-of-the-art laboratory facilities.
  • Multidisciplinary approach: Quaternary care centres typically employ a collaborative approach to patient care, involving various healthcare professionals working together to ensure the best possible outcome for each patient. This may include specialists from different medical fields, nurses, physical therapists, nutritionists, and social workers.

Community Health

Community health primarily involves the prevention, maintenance, and improvement of the health and well-being of individuals within a community.

It’s not strictly a level of care in the primary, secondary, or tertiary sense, but it is an integral part of any healthcare system.

It focuses on providing healthcare services to the local population and promoting better health through education and community engagement.

Examples Of Community Health Services

Community health services offer a wide range of healthcare solutions, such as:

  • Health education: Public health campaigns and seminars help raise awareness about risk factors, disease prevention, and lifestyle choices.
  • Mental health services: Counselling, therapy, and support groups are offered to individuals dealing with mental health issues.
  • Immunisation: Vaccination programmes protect the community from infectious diseases and prevent the spread of illness.
  • Screening programmes: Regular health checks and screening tests help detect and prevent diseases early on, such as breast and cervical cancer screenings.
  • District nursing: Nurses will regularly visit patients in their homes, saving them the need to attend a healthcare setting, thus helping to care for some of the most vulnerable in society.

Roles And Responsibilities

Various professionals work together in community health to provide a comprehensive range of services. Some of the key roles and responsibilities include:

  • Community health workers: These individuals provide basic healthcare services, health education, and information on available resources.
  • Community nurses: They offer support for patients recovering from illness, surgery, or injury, and assist with managing chronic conditions.
  • Health educators: Health educators develop and implement public health programmes and resources to promote healthier lifestyles and improved well-being.
  • Social workers: These professionals help individuals and families dealing with social issues that may impact their health, such as housing, employment, or financial difficulties.
  • Dietitians and nutritionists: They provide expert advice on dietary requirements and healthy eating habits to prevent and manage health issues.

Community health services prioritise addressing health disparities and inequalities within a population.

By focusing on prevention, early intervention, and promoting healthy lifestyles, these services aim to reduce the burden on primary, secondary and tertiary healthcare, enhancing the overall health and well-being of the community.

The Transition Between Levels Of Care

The NHS comprises different levels of care, which are designed to meet patients’ varying needs.

These levels of care – primary, secondary, and tertiary – complement one another and enable healthcare professionals to provide comprehensive treatment to their patients.

The transition between these levels of care is a crucial aspect of healthcare delivery, as it ensures that patients receive appropriate, timely, and coordinated care.

Primary care is the first point of contact for patients with the healthcare system but when a patient requires specialised care or additional tests and treatments, they are referred to secondary care.

Once a patient is referred to secondary care, specialists may collaborate with primary care providers to share relevant information and ensure the patient receives well-rounded care.

After the necessary treatment and interventions have been conducted, the patient may be discharged back to primary care for ongoing management and follow-up.

Tertiary care, a higher level of specialised care, caters to patients with complex or rare conditions that require advanced expertise, equipment, or facilities.

The transition from secondary to tertiary care occurs through referrals or transfers, often accompanied by a strong collaboration between healthcare professionals across all levels.

The transition between the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels of care aims to optimise patients’ outcomes by ensuring that they receive the right care at the right time, in the right setting.

To facilitate smooth transitions and minimise potential gaps in care, effective communication between healthcare professionals and accurate, timely transfer of relevant information is crucial. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Is A&E primary or secondary care?

Accident and Emergency (A&E) departments are considered a part of secondary care. A&E provides specialised care for urgent, complex, or life-threatening conditions that require immediate attention. It is important to note, however, that A&E is not a substitute for primary care.

What are the main differences between primary and secondary care?

Primary care is the initial point of contact with the healthcare system, providing a broad range of services for common health issues and is typically provided by GPs. Secondary care, on the other hand, involves specialised services provided by doctors or surgeons working in a hospital.

Final Thoughts

Every level of care plays an essential role in maintaining an efficient and effective healthcare system.

None would work in isolation and the coordination and transition between the different levels of care are what’s so crucial to being able to provide patients with the best service.

Primary care serves as the foundation for preventive healthcare and efficient management of chronic conditions, while secondary care and above focuses on addressing more severe, complex, or urgent health issues.

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.