What is Secondary Care in Health and Social Care

What is Secondary Care in Health and Social Care?

Settings, Service and Support

Care Learning

3 mins READ

Secondary care refers to a range of medical services provided by specialists who typically do not have the first point of contact with patients (that role is usually filled by primary care services like General Practitioners).


Secondary care is specialised medical care typically provided by healthcare professionals upon referral from a primary care provider. It encompasses diagnostic, therapeutic, and surgical procedures delivered by specialists in hospitals or specialised clinics.

Key Characteristics

  1. Specialist Services: Secondary care involves healthcare professionals specialising in specific fields such as cardiology, neurology, oncology, orthopaedics, etc.
  2. Referral-Based: Patients usually access secondary care services via referral from a primary care provider, such as a GP. This helps ensure that secondary care resources are used appropriately for patients needing more specialised attention.
  3. Hospital-Based Care: Many secondary care services are delivered in hospital settings. These can be outpatient clinics, day surgery units, or inpatient hospital wards for more intensive treatments or surgical procedures.

Types of Secondary Care

Secondary care services encompass a wide range of specialised medical services, including but not limited to:

Outpatient Services: Patients visit the hospital or clinic for consultations, diagnostics, and follow-up appointments without being admitted.

Inpatient Services: Patients are admitted to the hospital for procedures, surgeries, or treatments requiring overnight stays.

Emergency Services: Although often the first point of contact in an emergency, A&E departments are considered secondary care because they provide specialised acute care.

Diagnostic Services: Specialised imaging and laboratory tests, such as MRI scans, CT scans, blood tests, biopsies, etc.

Specialist Clinics: These clinics offer specific services for chronic conditions such as diabetes, asthma, and mental health.

Role of Secondary Care in the Healthcare System

Secondary care plays a crucial role in the overall healthcare system by providing:

Specialised Expertise: Offering advanced diagnostic and treatment options that are not available in primary care settings.

Advanced Medical Technology: Utilising more sophisticated medical technologies for diagnosis and treatment of complex conditions.

Comprehensive Care: Managing inpatient care for surgeries, serious illnesses, and other conditions requiring specialised medical interventions.

Coordination with Primary and Tertiary Care

  • Primary Care: Secondary care services often collaborate closely with GPs and primary care teams to ensure a seamless patient journey. Information, diagnoses, and treatment plans are shared to provide holistic care.
  • Tertiary Care: For even more specialised treatments, such as advanced surgical procedures or complex treatments (e.g., certain cancer treatments), secondary care acts as a bridge to tertiary care providers. Tertiary care involves highly specialised consultative care usually provided in highly specialised centres or hospitals.

Accessibility and Referrals

Referrals to secondary care are typically based on specific medical needs that cannot be met within primary care. In the NHS framework, referrals are managed systematically to ensure timely and appropriate access to these specialised services.

Challenges and Considerations

  1. Wait Times: One of the primary challenges in accessing secondary care can be long wait times for referrals and appointments, influenced by the capacity and demand within the NHS.
  2. Resource Allocation: Efficiently managing resources to meet the diverse needs of patients requiring advanced medical care while balancing costs and resource constraints.
  3. Integration of Care: Ensuring smooth communication and care transitions between primary, secondary, and tertiary services to offer coherent and efficient patient care.


Secondary care is a pivotal component of the health and social care system, providing vital specialised services that address complex health issues.

By working in tandem with primary and tertiary care services, secondary care helps delineate a robust and comprehensive healthcare framework aimed at meeting diverse patient needs.

Understanding the structure and function of secondary care is essential for patients, healthcare providers, and policymakers to enhance the quality and accessibility of healthcare services.

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