Implications of complex adaptive systems theory for interpreting research about health care organizations

Michelle Jordon, Holly Jordan Lanham, Ruth A. Anderson, Reuben R. McDaniel

Research output: Contribution to journalShort survey

38 Scopus citations

Abstract

Rationale Data about health care organizations (HCOs) are not useful until they are interpreted. Such interpretations are influenced by the theoretical lenses used by the researcher. Objective Our purpose was to suggest the usefulness of theories of complex adaptive systems (CASs) in guiding research interpretation. Specifically, we addressed two questions: (1) What are the implications for interpreting research observations in HCOs of the fact that we are observing relationships among diverse agents? (2) What are the implications for interpreting research observations in HCOs of the fact that we are observing relationships among agents that learn? Methods We defined diversity and learning and the implications of the non-linear relationships among agents from a CAS perspective. We then identified some common analytical practices that were problematic and may lead to conceptual and methodological errors. Then we described strategies for interpreting the results of research observations. Conclusions We suggest that the task of interpreting research observations of HCOs could be improved if researchers take into account that the systems they study are CASs with non-linear relationships among diverse, learning agents. Our analysis points out how interpretation of research results might be shaped by the fact that HCOs are CASs. We described how learning is, in fact, the result of interactions among diverse agents and that learning can, by itself, reduce or increase agent diversity. We encouraged researchers to be persistent in their attempts to reason about complex systems and learn to attend not only to structures, but also to processes and functions of complex systems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)228-231
Number of pages4
JournalJournal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice
Volume16
Issue number1
DOIs
StatePublished - Feb 1 2010
Externally publishedYes

Keywords

  • Diversity
  • Learning
  • Research methods

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Policy
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health

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