Change and improvement 50 years in the making: a scoping review of the use of soft systems methodology in healthcare

Hanna Augustsson*, Kate Churruca, Jeffrey Braithwaite

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)
3 Downloads (Pure)


Introduction: Improving the quality of healthcare has proven to be a challenging task despite longstanding efforts. Approaches to improvements that consider the strong influence of local context as well as stakeholders’ differing views on the situation are warranted. Soft systems methodology (SSM) includes contextual and multi-perspectival features. However, the way SSM has been applied and the outcomes of using SSM to stimulate productive change in healthcare have not been sufficiently investigated. Aim: This scoping review aimed to examine and map the use and outcomes of SSM in healthcare settings. Method: The review was based on Arksey and O’Malley’s framework. We searched six academic databases to January 2019 for peer-reviewed journal articles in English. We also reviewed reference lists of included citations. Articles were included if they were empirical studies focused on the application of SSM in a healthcare setting. Two reviewers conducted the abstract review and one reviewer conducted the full-text review and extracted data on study characteristics, ways of applying SSM and the outcomes of SSM initiatives. Study quality was assessed using Hawker’s Quality Assessment Tool. Result: A total of 49 studies were included in the final review. SSM had been used in a range of healthcare settings and for a variety of problem situations. The results revealed an inconsistent use of SSM including departing from Checkland’s original vision, applying different tools and involving stakeholders idiosyncratically. The quality of included studies varied and reporting of how SSM had been applied was sometimes inadequate. SSM had most often been used to understand a problem situation and to suggest potential improvements to the situation but to a lesser extent to implement and evaluate these improvements. Conclusion: SSM is flexible and applicable to a range of problem situations in healthcare settings. However, better reporting of how SSM has been applied as well as evaluation of different types of outcomes, including implementation and intervention outcomes, is needed in order to appreciate more fully the utility and contribution of SSM in healthcare.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1063
Pages (from-to)1-13
Number of pages13
JournalBMC Health Services Research
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2020

Bibliographical note

Copyright the Author(s) 2020. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


  • Change management
  • Collaboration
  • Healthcare
  • Participation
  • Soft systems methodology
  • Stakeholders


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