Saturday, February 20, 2016

Hypothesis: Chaotic behaviour of healthcare systems is inevitable without more resources.

This appears to be a rather widely held belief, but what is the evidence?

Can we disprove this hypothesis?

Chaos is a predictable, emergent behaviour of many systems, both natural and man made, a discovery that was made rather recently, in the 1970’s.  Chaotic behaviour is not the same as random behaviour.  The fundamental difference is that random implies independence, while chaos requires the opposite: chaotic systems have interdependent parts.

Chaotic behaviour is complex and counter-intuitive, which may explain why it took so long for the penny to drop.

Chaos is a complex behaviour and it is tempting to assume that complicated structures always lead to complex behaviour.  But they do not.  A mechanical clock is a complicated structure but its behaviour is intentionally very stable and highly predictable – that is the purpose of a clock.  It is a fit-for-purpose design.

The healthcare system has many parts; it too is a complicated system; it has a complicated structure.  It is often seen to demonstrate chaotic behaviour.

So we might propose that a complicated system like healthcare could also be stable and predictable. If it were designed to be.

But there is another critical factor to take into account.

A mechanical clock only has inanimate cogs and springs that only obey the Laws of Physics – and they are neither adaptable nor negotiable.

A healthcare system is different. It is a living structure. It has patients, providers and purchasers as essential components. And the rules of how people work together are both negotiable and adaptable.

So when we are thinking about a healthcare system we are thinking about a complex adaptive system or CAS.

And that changes everything!

The good news is that adaptive behaviour can be a very effective anti-chaos strategy, if it is applied wisely.  The not-so-good news is that if it is not applied wisely then it can actually generate even more chaos.

Which brings us back to our hypothesis.

What if the chaos we are observing on out healthcare system is actually iatrogenic?

What if we are unintentionally and unconsciously generating it?

These questions require an answer because if we are unwittingly contributing to the chaos, with insight, understanding and wisdom we can intentionally calm it too.

These questions also challenge us to study our current way of thinking and working.  And in that challenge we will need to demonstrate a behaviour called humility. An ability to acknowledge that there are gaps in our knowledge and our understanding. A willingness to learn.

This all sounds rather too plausible in theory. What about an example?

Let us consider the highest flow process in healthcare: the outpatient clinic stream.

The typical design is a three-step process called the New-Test-Review design. This sequential design is simpler because the steps are largely independent of each other. And this simplicity is attractive because it is easier to schedule so is less likely to be chaotic. The downsides are the queues and delays between the steps and the risk of getting lost in the system. So if we are worried that a patient may have a serious illness that requires prompt diagnosis and treatment (e.g. cancer), then this simpler design is actually a potentially unsafe design.

A one-stop clinic is a better design because the New-Test-Review steps are completed in one visit, and that is better for everyone. But, a one-stop clinic is a more challenging scheduling problem because all the steps are now interdependent, and that is fertile soil for chaos to emerge.  And chaos is exactly what we often see.

Attending a chaotic one-stop clinic is frustrating experience for both patients and staff, and it is also less productive use of resources. So the chaos and cost appears to be price we are asked to pay for a quicker and safer design.

So is the one stop clinic chaos inevitable, or is it avoidable?

Simple observation of a one stop clinic shows that the chaos is associated with queues – which are visible as a waiting room full of patients and front-of-house staff working very hard to manage the queue and to signpost and soothe the disgruntled patients.

What if the one stop clinic queue and chaos is iatrogenic? What if it was avoidable without investing in more resources? Would the chaos evaporate? Would the quality improve?  Could we have a safer, calmer, higher quality and more productive design?

Last week I shared evidence that proved the one-stop clinic chaos was iatrogenic – by showing it was avoidable.

A team of healthcare staff were shown how to diagnose the cause of the queue and were then able to remove that cause, and to deliver the same outcome without the queue and the associated chaos.

And the most surprising lesson that the team learned was that they achieved this improvement using the same resources as before; and that those resources also felt the benefit of the chaos evaporating. Their work was easier, calmer and more predictable.

The impossible-without-more-resources hypothesis had been disproved.

So, where else in our complicated and complex healthcare system might we apply anti-chaos?


And for more about complexity science see Santa Fe Institute