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The twentieth century witnessed the rise of an unprecedented global health divide. Industrialized or high-income countries experienced rapid improvement in standards of living, nutrition, health, and health care. Meanwhile, in low- and middle-income countries with much less favorable conditions, health and health care progressed much more slowly. The scale of this divide is reflected in the current extremes of life expectancy at birth, with Japan at the high end (85 years) and Chad at the low end (50 years). This 35-year difference reflects the daunting range of health challenges faced by low- and middle-income countries. These nations must deal not only with a complex mixture of diseases (both infectious and chronic) and illness-promoting conditions but also, and more fundamentally, with the fragility of the foundations underlying good health (e.g., sufficient food, water, sanitation, and education) and of the systems necessary for universal access to good-quality health care. In the last decades of the twentieth century, the need to bridge this global health divide and establish health equity was increasingly recognized. The Declaration of Alma Ata in 1978 crystallized a vision of justice in health, regardless of income, gender, ethnicity, or education, and called for “health for all by the year 2000” through primary health care. While much progress has been made since the declaration, at the end of the first decade and half of the twenty-first century, much remains to be done to achieve global health equity.

This chapter looks first at the nature of the health challenges that underlie the health divide in low- and middle-income countries. It then outlines the values and principles of a primary health care approach, with a focus on primary care services. Next, the chapter reviews the experience of low- and middle-income countries in addressing health challenges through primary care and a primary health care approach. Finally, the chapter identifies how current challenges and global context provide an agenda and opportunities for the renewal of primary health care and primary care, allied to the movement to achieve universal health coverage.


The term primary care has been used in many different ways: to describe a level of care or the setting of the health system, a set of treatment and prevention activities carried out by specific personnel, a set of attributes for the way care is delivered, or an approach to organizing health systems that is synonymous with the term primary health care. In 1996, the U.S. Institute of Medicine encompassed many of these different usages, defining primary care as “the provision of integrated, accessible health care services by clinicians who are accountable for addressing a large majority of personal health care needs, developing a sustained partnership with patients, and practicing in the context of family and community.”1 We use this definition of primary care in this chapter. Primary care performs an essential function for health systems, ...

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