Simple Rules That Guide Generalist and Specialist Care.

Rebecca Etz, Virginia Commonwealth University
William L Miller
Kurt C Stange, Case Western Reserve University


The sometimes-paradoxical emergent behavior of complex systems may be explained by the interaction of simple rules. The paradox of primary care-that systems based on primary care have healthier populations, fewer health inequities, lower health care expenditures, and better system-level evidence-based disease care, despite less evidence-based care for individual diseases-may be explained by the iterative interaction among three simple rules that describe the generalist approach: (1) Recognize a broad range of problems/opportunities; (2) Prioritize attention and action with the intent of promoting health, healing, and connection; and (3) Personalize care based on the particulars of the individual or family in their local context. These are complemented by three simple rules for specialist care that represent current approaches to quality and health care system improvement: (1) Identify and classify disease for management; (2) Interpret through specialized knowledge; (3) Generate and carry out a management plan. Health care systems that support the enactment of the simple rules of the generalist approach are likely to have more effective primary and specialty care, and greater population health, equity, quality, and sustainable cost.