Embracing uncertainty, managing complexity: Applying complexity thinking principles to transformation efforts in healthcare systems

Sobia Khan, Ashley Vandermorris, John Shepherd, James W. Begun, Holly Jordan Lanham, Mary Uhl-Bien, Whitney Berta

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations

Abstract

Background: Complexity thinking is increasingly being embraced in healthcare, which is often described as a complex adaptive system (CAS). Applying CAS to healthcare as an explanatory model for understanding the nature of the system, and to stimulate changes and transformations within the system, is valuable. Main text: A seminar series on systems and complexity thinking hosted at the University of Toronto in 2016 offered a number of insights on applications of CAS perspectives to healthcare that we explore here. We synthesized topics from this series into a set of six insights on how complexity thinking fosters a deeper understanding of accepted ideas in healthcare, applications of CAS to actors within the system, and paradoxes in applications of complexity thinking that may require further debate: 1) a complexity lens helps us better understand the nebulous term "context"; 2) concepts of CAS may be applied differently when actors are cognizant of the system in which they operate; 3) actor responses to uncertainty within a CAS is a mechanism for emergent and intentional adaptation; 4) acknowledging complexity supports patient-centred intersectional approaches to patient care; 5) complexity perspectives can support ways that leaders manage change (and transformation) in healthcare; and 6) complexity demands different ways of implementing ideas and assessing the system. To enhance our exploration of key insights, we augmented the knowledge gleaned from the series with key articles on complexity in the literature. Conclusions: Ultimately, complexity thinking acknowledges the "messiness" that we seek to control in healthcare and encourages us to embrace it. This means seeing challenges as opportunities for adaptation, stimulating innovative solutions to ensure positive adaptation, leveraging the social system to enable ideas to emerge and spread across the system, and even more important, acknowledging that these adaptive actions are part of system behaviour just as much as periods of stability are. By embracing uncertainty and adapting innovatively, complexity thinking enables system actors to engage meaningfully and comfortably in healthcare system transformation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number192
JournalBMC Health Services Research
Volume18
Issue number1
DOIs
StatePublished - Mar 21 2018

Keywords

  • Complex adaptive systems
  • Complexity
  • Health systems
  • Systems thinking

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Policy

Fingerprint Dive into the research topics of 'Embracing uncertainty, managing complexity: Applying complexity thinking principles to transformation efforts in healthcare systems'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this