BACKGROUND: Primary care is internationally recognised as one of the cornerstones of health care. During the COVID-19 pandemic, primary care physicians were assigned a variety of tasks and thus made a significant contribution to a country's pandemic response. They were expected to perform a variety of tasks, such as diagnosing and treating people with COVID-19, maintaining health care for all other patients, as well as several public health tasks, such as diagnostic testing and vaccination, protecting patients and staff from infection, and serving as community trusted persons. In Austria, there are no structured levels of care, no definition of the role of the general practitioner during a pandemic is given, and no specific support structures are present. The aim of this study was to assess the views and experiences of primary care physicians regarding supportive and hindering factors for pandemic preparedness in Austria.
METHODS: Qualitative study using semi-structured interviews. A total of 30 general practitioners were interviewed, with particular attention to an equitable distribution in small, medium and large primary care facilities. Qualitative content analysis was performed.
RESULTS: Interviewees described a wide range of infection control, organisational and communication measures that they had implemented. They made changes to practise equipment, found makeshift solutions when supplies were scarce, and established communication and information pathways when official communication lines were inadequate.
CONCLUSION: General practitioners took on essential tasks and showed a high level of understanding of their role in the pandemic response. This was achieved mainly at an informal level and with high personal commitment. Their functioning in the absence of structural regulations and support shows that they had a clear intrinsic understanding of their responsibilities. To ensure reliability and sustainability and to reduce their burden, it will be necessary to clarify the role and tasks of a general practitioner and to provide the necessary support. This concerns both infrastructural support and communication and information strategies. As part of the reform to strengthen primary care, primary care needs to be seen, valued and involved in decision-making processes.