A guide to secondary care

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In healthcare, treatment can often be categorised in a series of levels. As people make their way through their recovery journey from injury or illness, they might come into contact with various healthcare professionals that provide a different level of expertise or service. These are known as levels of care, one of which is secondary care.

What is secondary care?

Secondary care is characterised as treatment that isn’t delivered as the first point of contact for that individual. It might be a doctor who is a specialist in a particular disease or condition, or a clinic or care provider that’s dedicated to a particular area. In addiction for example, secondary care is the support someone in recovery would receive after their initial treatment programme (usually rehab).

Here, we will explore the roles of primary and secondary care, particularly in the context of addiction recovery.

What is the difference between and primary care and secondary care?

Primary care and secondary care are fundamentally different in many ways, such as:

  • The needs the individual has for their health or recovery
  • The intent of the care
  • The focus of the care provider

The different between primary and secondary care can be summarised as follows:


The service that someone first encounters when they come into a healthcare system is known as primary care. Most people will be very familiar with primary care, as the most common example of this is your GP, local practice or walk-in centre. The primary objective here is to provide immediate, effective care for the injury or illness of the individual.

In addiction recovery, primary care will usually refer to a rehab programme or some other form of residential addiction treatment. Within this treatment level, you’ll work on the practical side of recovery and address the root causes of your addiction. By the end of treatment, you’ll have regained your confidence and independence without the need to use the harmful substances you’d become addicted to.


Secondary care is any care an individual receives for their illness or condition that occurs beyond the primary care they have already received. It may be designed slightly differently from primary care, focusing on different outcomes and bringing different benefits to the individual. Examples might be looking more at long-term recovery or moving out of permanent residential care like hospitals or clinics into a day-care or limited residential environment.

In addiction recovery, secondary care offers extra support and a ‘soft landing’ when returning to normal life after a residential treatment programme. Addiction is a lifelong recovery endeavour, so extra support to develop the strategies and techniques required to sustain long-term recovery can be of huge benefit to those who need it.

There are two additional levels of care that follow primary and secondary care. Tertiary care is considered to be highly specialised care where clinicians carrying out the care are experts in their field and have access to specialist equipment. If you require long-term specialist care, tertiary care may follow on from Secondary.

Quaternary care is an extension of tertiary, but is hyper-specialised and considered to be rare.

Who needs secondary care?

Secondary care can be a great benefit to anyone who requires further treatment after they have been through primary care. More specialist treatment, which is highly focused on your condition and needs as an individual, can lead to better long-term outcomes and lessen the chance of symptoms returning again in the future.

In addiction treatment, secondary care is especially powerful. Anyone who has been on a 28-day primary residential treatment programme would benefit from ongoing support in a secondary care environment.

Those who move from primary to secondary care speak of the help it brings when adjusting back to normality. After 28 days of intensive residential treatment, the task of moving back to normal life, filled with the same temptations and triggers as before, can be incredibly daunting. In secondary care, you’ll take a slow and measured approach to returning to normality, mixing home life with inpatient treatment. You can even return to your professional life at work, again ensuring this is balanced with your long-term wellbeing.

Throughout your time in secondary care, you’ll be focused on putting the right skills and techniques in place to handle a permanent return to normality. Temptations and triggers will inevitably return, but with the added support of secondary care you’ll be well equipped to deal with them.

Page reviewed by Andrea Taylor (MSc MBacp, FDap Accred).

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