Redesigning Health Care with Insights from the Science of Complex Adaptive Systems – Crossing the Quality Chasm – Paul Plsek, 2001 – NCBI Bookshelf

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Source: Redesigning Health Care with Insights from the Science of Complex Adaptive Systems – Crossing the Quality Chasm – NCBI Bookshelf

 

Crossing the Quality Chasm: A New Health System for the 21st Century.

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Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Quality of Health Care in America.
Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2001.

Appendix B

Redesigning Health Care with Insights from the Science of Complex Adaptive Systems

Paul Plsek

The task of building the 21st-century health care system is large and complex. In this appendix, we will lay a theoretical framework for approaching the design of complex systems and discuss the practical implications.

SYSTEMS THINKING

A “system” can be defined by the coming together of parts, interconnections, and purpose (see, for example, definitions proposed by von Bertalanffy [1968] and Capra [1996]). While systems can be broken down into parts which are interesting in and of themselves, the real power lies in the way the parts come together and are interconnected to fulfill some purpose.

The health care system of the United States consists of various parts (e.g., clinics, hospitals, pharmacies, laboratories) that are interconnected (via flows of patients and information) to fulfill a purpose (e.g., maintaining and improving health). Similarly, a thermostat and fan are a “system.” Both parts can be understood independently, but when they are interconnected, they fulfill the purpose of maintaining a comfortable temperature in a given space.

The intuitive notion of various system “levels,” such as the microsystem and macrosystem, has to do with the number and strength of interconnections between the elements of the systems. For example, a doctor’s office or clinic can be described as a microsystem. It is small and self-contained, with relatively few interconnections. Patients, physicians, nurses, and office staff interact to produce diagnoses, treatments, and information. In contrast, the health care system in a community is a macrosystem. It consists of numerous microsystems (doctor’s offices, hospitals, long-term care facilities, pharmacies, Internet websites, and so on) that are linked to provide continuity and comprehensiveness of care. Similarly, a thermostat and fan comprise a relatively simple microsystem. Combine many of these, along with various boiler, refrigerant, and computer-control microsystems, and one has a macrosystem that can maintain an office building environment.

A distinction can also be made between systems that are largely mechanical in nature and those that are naturally adaptive (see Table B-1). The distinctions between mechanical and naturally adaptive systems are fundamental and key to the task of system design. In mechanical systems, we can know and predict in great detail what each of the parts will do in response to a given stimulus. Thus, it is possible to study and predict in great detail what the system will do in a variety of circumstances. Complex mechanical systems rarely exhibit surprising, emergent behavior. When they do—for example, an airplane explosion or computer network crash—experts study the phenomenon in detail to design surprise out of future systems.

TABLE B-1. Mechanical Versus Naturally Adaptive Systems.

TABLE B-1

Mechanical Versus Naturally Adaptive Systems.

In complex adaptive systems, on the other hand, the “parts” (in the case of the U.S. health care system, this includes human beings) have the freedom and ability to respond to stimuli in many different and fundamentally unpredictable ways. For this reason, emergent, surprising, creative behavior is a real possibility. Such behavior can be for better or for worse; that is, it can manifest itself as either innovation or error. Further, such emergent behavior can occur at both the microsystem and macrosystem levels. The evolving relationship of trust between a patient and clinician is an example of emergence at the microsystem level. The AIDS epidemic is an example of emergence that affects the macrosystem of care.

The distinction between mechanical and naturally adaptive systems is obvious when given some thought. However, many system designers do not seem to take this distinction into account. Rather, they design complex human systems as if the parts and interconnections were predictable in their behavior, although fundamentally, they are not. When the human parts do not act as expected or hoped for, we say that people are being “unreasonable” or “resistant to change,” their behavior is “wrong” or “inappropriate.” The system designer’s reaction typically is to specify behavior in even more detail via laws, regulations, structures, rules, guidelines, and so on. The unstated goal seems to be to make the human parts act more mechanical.

Continues in source: Redesigning Health Care with Insights from the Science of Complex Adaptive Systems – Crossing the Quality Chasm – NCBI Bookshelf

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