Background This paper focuses on the relationships between health 'policy' as it is embodied in official documentation, and health 'practice' as reported and reflected on in the talk of policy-makers, health professionals and patients. The specific context for the study involves a comparison of policies relating to the secondary prevention of coronary heart disease (CHD) in the two jurisdictions of Ireland - involving as they do a predominantly state funded (National Health Service) system in the north and a mixed health-care economy in the south. The key question is to determine how the detail of health policy as contained in policy documents connects to and gets translated into practice and action. Methods The data sources for the study include relevant health-care policy documents (N = 5) and progress reports (N = 6) in the two Irish jurisdictions, and semi-structured interviews with a range of policy-makers (N = 28), practice nurses (14), general practitioners (12) and patients (13) to explore their awareness of the documents' contents and how they saw the impact of 'policy' on primary care practice. Results The findings suggest that although strategic policy documents can be useful for highlighting and channelling attention to health issues that require concerted action, they have little impact on what either professionals or lay people do. Conclusion To influence the latter and to encourage a systematic approach to the delivery of health care it seems likely that contractual arrangements - specifying tasks to be undertaken and methods for monitoring and reporting on activity - are required.