The UK is unusual in providing universal free healthcare in which access to specialists is largely controlled by general practitioners with 24-hour responsibility, throughout the year, for a defined list of patients of all ages. It is generally considered that this gatekeeper function has contributed to the relatively low cost of the National Health Service, but major changes in the organisation and clinical role of general practitioners have occurred, culminating in a new contract that aims to re-orientate general practice towards health promotion, disease prevention and the management of chronic disease. The implications of these changes are discussed.
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