Using Systems Thinking in Healthcare

Lane Sanders
4 min readApr 25, 2020

Before we dive into all the ways Systems Thinking can be used in a healthcare setting we must first look into what Systems Thinking is and what it isn’t. First off, Systems Thinking is essentially an analytical tool that can help an individual, company, or team relate different problems to one another to try and find a solution or best outcome. However, Systems thinking while being a very useful tool is by no means a be-all-end-all to problem solving within healthcare or in general. ⁴

Systems thinking has a wide range of possibilities that include use in business models, healthcare decisions, military use, as well as everyday life decisions. There is a wide variety of use for Systems thinking which include positive and negative loops.² Positive loops are reinforcing and more of A produces more of B. While negative loops can have a positive change that leads to some disagreement or negative outcome.² Overall, this method and tool can help improve results and efficiency within healthcare as will be talked further about below.

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Looking now at several examples we will begin to understand how Systems Thinking can help unravel the connections we are often unable to see when we use traditional or linear thinking. In healthcare there are many situations that require conception based knowledge. Systems thinking would allow for individuals to use the information they know to their full advantage. Using these models and diagrams would assist in the healthcare setting by allowing us to see connections we would otherwise be unable to see.

There are many hard situations in healthcare that people could use the concept of perspectives to deal with. There are theories such as Catastrophe Theory or Chaos theory that could be well implemented into healthcare systems to better prepare to certain events.² This could include the current crisis of COVID-19 and using a systems chart of how to prepare for the influx of patients to hospitals and how many small events within this system would be related.

Using systems thinking could help reduce recurrent problems. This could help save healthcare systems money while more importantly reducing cost for the patient. This style of thinking would also helps healthcare employees eliminate small mistakes that in the end take time and resources away from patients.³ Oftentimes, problems are all correlated, but are treated as if the are independent of one another, thus making it more difficult to find a solution.¹There are several important principles to consider when thinking about systems thinking and how it applies to healthcare.

  1. Purposefulness³
  2. Connectedness³
  3. Perspective³
  4. Emergence³

Using the principle to create a purposeful map allows for one to keep the system understandable to those who might find the tool complicated. Using connectedness allows the path to show relationships we otherwise might miss. Considering perspective when using Systems Thinking allows those within a team to gain insight into areas and viewpoints they otherwise might not be aware of. And finally emergence of results allows those using Systems thinking to see how the results are working for the best, and what changes need to be made if initial results aren’t as intended.

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While there are many advantages to systems thinking, the transition to a team that uses and implements the tool may not always be easy. Many people today think linearly and in mechanistic fashion.⁴ Early on in this transition to systems thinking people can get overwhelmed and think the whole system is somewhat chaotic.⁴ This initial hardship can be viewed as normal and will usually resolve with practice and time. However, there are some people who will function best by not using systems thinking because they view it as time consuming and have a hard time visualizing the issue.

Regardless of what business or setting you may find yourself, Systems Thinking can be a useful tool if used properly to help you find connections, find solutions, and get the desired results.

Sources

  1. Trbovich, P. (2014). Five ways to incorporate systems thinking into healthcare organizations. Biomedical Instrumentation & Technology, Suppl, 31–4, 36.
  2. Peters, David H. (2014). The application of systems thinking in health: Why use systems thinking? Health Research Policy and Systems, 12(1), 51.
  3. Anonymous. “5 Principles of Systems Thinking for a Changing Healthcare Ecosystem.” MDDI Online, 7 Aug. 2017, www.mddionline.com/5-principles-systems-thinking-changing-healthcare-ecosystem.
  4. Ollhoff, Jim. “MAKING THE JUMP TO SYSTEMS THINKING.” Systems Thinker, n.d. Accessed April 23, 2020.

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