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OBJECTIVE: To examine the relation between physician, training and practice characteristics and the provision of preventive care as described in the guidelines of the Canadian Task Force on the Periodic Health Examination. DESIGN: Cross-sectional study. SETTING: Family practices open to new patients within 1 hour's drive of Hamilton, Ont. PARTICIPANTS: A total of 125 family physicians were randomly selected from respondents to an earlier preventive care survey. Of the 125, 44 (35.2%) declined to participate, and an additional 19 (15.2%) initially consented but later withdrew when they closed their practices to new patients. Sixty-two physicians thus participated in the study. INTERVENTION: Unannounced standardized patients posing as new patients to the practice visited study physicians' practices between September 1994 and August 1995, portraying 4 scenarios: 48-year-old man, 70-year-old man, 28-year-old woman and 52-year-old woman. OUTCOME MEASURES: Proportion of preventive care manoeuvres carrying grade A, B, C, D and E recommendations from the Canadian Task Force on the Periodic Health Examination that were performed, offered or advised. A standard score was computed based on the performance of grade A and B manoeuvres (good or fair evidence for inclusion in the periodic health examination) and the non-performance of grade D and E manoeuvres (fair or good evidence for exclusion from the periodic health examination). RESULTS: Study physicians performed or offered 65.6% of applicable grade A manoeuvres, 31.0% of grade B manoeuvres, 22.4% of grade C manoeuvres, 21.8% of grade D manoeuvres and 4.9% of grade E manoeuvres. The provision of evidence-based preventive care was associated with solo (v. group) practice and capitation or salary (v. fee-for-service) payment method. Preventive care performance was unrelated to physician's sex, certification in family medicine or problem-based (v. traditional) medical school curriculum. CONCLUSIONS: Preventive care guidelines of the Canadian Task Force on the Periodic Health Examination have been incompletely integrated into clinical practice. Research is needed to identify and reduce barriers to the provision of preventive care and to develop and apply effective processes for the creation, dissemination and implementation of clinical practice guidelines.