The prevention and delay of chronic disease is an increasing priority in all advanced health-care systems, but sustainable, effective and equitable approaches remain elusive. In a famous pioneering example in the UK, Julian Tudor Hart combined reactive and anticipatory care within routine consultations in primary medical care, while applying a population approach to delivery and audit. This approach combined the structural advantages of UK general practice, including universal coverage and the absence of user fees, with his long-term commitment to individual patients, and was associated with a 28% reduction in premature mortality over a 25-year period. The more recent, and comprehensively evaluated Scottish National Health Service demonstration project, ‘Have a Heart Paisley’, took a different approach to cardiovascular prevention and health improvement, using population screening for ascertainment, health coaches and referral to specific health improvement programmes for diet, smoking and exercise. We draw from both examples to construct a conceptual framework for anticipatory care, based on active ingredients, programme pathways and whole system approaches. While the strengths of a family practice approach are coverage, continuity, co-ordination and long-term relationships, the larger health improvement programme offered additional resources and expertise. As theory and evidence accrue, the challenge is to combine the strengths of primary medical care and health improvement, in integrated, sustainable systems of anticipatory care, addressing the heterogeneity of individual needs and solutions, while achieving high levels of coverage, continuity, co-ordination and outcome.