Complexity science as a frame for understanding the management and delivery of high quality and safer care

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Over the past two decades, prominent researchers such as Greenhalgh [1], Plsek [2], Leykum [3], Lanham [4], Petticrew [5] and Hawe [6, 7] and their colleagues and teams have promoted using complexity theory to describe and analyse the various dimensions of healthcare organisation [8–12]. Internationally, in parallel, governments have recognised the need to ‘think differently’ about healthcare policy and service delivery, but without much traction on how that might be done and what it might mean. Nevertheless, it has now become more common—but by no means universal—to apply a complexity lens to understanding healthcare services and to improving them. This involves greater appreciation of elaborate, intricate, multi-faceted care networks, healthcare ecosystems, layered parts in composite settings, contextual differences across care settings, clinical cultures, multi-agent environments, and the convoluted, challenging, wicked problems [13] these systems throw up. However, with some relatively limited exceptions, the quality and safety fields’ interest in complexity has, to date, been largely superficial, both theoretically and empirically [1].
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationTextbook of patient safety and clinical risk management
EditorsLiam Donaldson, Walter Ricciardi, Susan Sheridan, Riccardo Tartaglia
Place of PublicationSwitzerland
Number of pages17
ISBN (Electronic)9783030594039
ISBN (Print)9783030594022
Publication statusPublished - 2021

Bibliographical note

Copyright the Author(s) 2021. 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.


  • Complexity science
  • Quality and safety
  • Complex Adaptive Systems
  • Implementation science
  • Social network analysis


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