Objective To investigate the impact of factors outside the control of primary care on performance indicators proposed as measures of the quality of primary care. Design Multiple regression analysis relating admission rates standardised for age and sex for asthma, diabetes, and epilepsy to socioeconomic population characteristics and to the supply of secondary care resources. Setting 90 family health services authorities in England, 1989-90 to 1994-5. Results At health authority level socioeconomic characteristics, health status, and secondary care supply factors explained 45% of the variation in admission rates for asthma, 33% for diabetes, and 55% for epilepsy. When health authorities were ranked, only four of the 10 with the highest age-sex standardised admission rates for asthma in 1994-5 remained in the top 10 when allowance was made for socioeconomic characteristics, health status, and secondary care supply factors. There was also substantial year to year variation in the rates. Conclusion Health outcomes should relate to crude rates of adverse events in the population. These give the best indication of the size of a health problem. Performance indicators, however, should relate to those aspects of care which can be altered by the staff whose performance is being measured
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