Make it complicated: A qualitative study utilizing a complexity framework to explain improvement in health care

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Background: Successful application of Quality Improvement (QI) methods is challenging, and awareness of the role context plays has increased. Complexity science has been advocated as a way to inform change efforts. However, empirical support is scarce, and it is still difficult to grasp the practical implications for QI interventions. The aim of this study was to use a complexity-based leadership framework to explain how managers in a clinical department addressed external requirements to cut costs without compromising patient outcomes and experience. Methods: Explanatory case study design of a Danish OB/GYN department tasked to improve efficiency. Data came from documents, 30 interviews, and 250 h of observations over 3 years. A Complexity Analysis Framework that combined two complexity-based leadership frameworks was developed to analyze all changes implemented to reduce cost, while maintaining clinical quality. Results: Managers reframed the efficiency requirement as an opportunity for quality improvement. Multiple simple, complicated, and complex situations were addressed with an adaptive approach to quality improvement. Changes were made to clinical pathways for individual conditions (n = 37), multiple conditions (n = 7), and at the organizational level (n = 9). At the organizational level, changes addressed referral practice, physical space in the department, flow and capacity, discharge speed, and managerial support. Managers shared responsibility with staff; together they took a "professional path" and systematically analyzed each clinical pathway through process mapping, attentive to patterns that emerged, before deciding on the next steps, such as a engaging in a complex process of probing - the iterative development and testing of new responses. Conclusions: Quality improvement efforts could benefit from an understanding of the importance of learning and sharing responsibility to deal with the co-existing degrees of contextual complexity in modern health care. By "making things complicated" through a systematic analysis that engages staff in an open and reflective dialog, clinical praxis and established organizational structures can be questioned and improved. The Complexity Analysis Framework could then help managers to identify improvement opportunities, know when to implement technical solutions, and when to keep abreast of emerging patterns and allow appropriate responses to complex challenges to evolve.




Storkholm, M. H., Mazzocato, P., & Savage, C. (2019). Make it complicated: A qualitative study utilizing a complexity framework to explain improvement in health care. BMC Health Services Research, 19(1).

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