February 25, 2024

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Why you need to be a systems thinker in health care

Practicing medicine today is so much more than the interaction between you and the patient sitting before you. Physicians must understand all parts of the health care system—from the emergency department to the primary care clinic, from the patient’s family to community organizations—and critically think about how all these moving parts can work together to improve patients’ health, meet their health care needs and anticipate and mitigate safety threats or other problems.

It is a practice called systems thinking and an education module offered via the AMA Ed Hub™ helps medical students—and residents and practicing physicians who may not have received training during their medical school years—understand the importance of systems thinking in clinical care and learn how to adopt the habits of a systems-thinking health professional who can help improve care.

The AMA Ed Hub is an online platform that brings together high-quality CME, maintenance of certification, and educational content from trusted sources, all in one place—with activities relevant to you, automated credit tracking, and reporting for some states and specialty boards. The free online module, “How Systems Thinking Applies to Health Care,” is one of 13 modules released as part of the AMA Health Systems Science Learning Series.

The  prepares learners to successfully navigate complex health systems, enhance patient care, improve outcomes and work toward fulfilling the promise of the Quadruple Aim—better patient experience, better population health, lower overall costs and improved professional satisfaction. Each engaging and interactive module is a vital part of helping medical students and other learners become effective systems citizens.

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Training tomorrow’s doctors to put patients first

To become a health systems thinker, future physicians must first understand they will be part of complex, adaptive system made up of independent parts and agents, such as these outlined below.

Providers’ system. A clinic or hospital where physicians and other health professionals provide care and support for patients, including administrative functions and other processes of care.

Health care system. A collection of clinical programs and centers that are part of a larger organization, such as clinical programs and centers, hospitals, multispecialty groups and integrated health care systems.

Patient’s system. The people patients interact with, including their family and friends, community organizations, their providers, the larger health care system and health care administration professionals and processes.

Systems thinking helps provide better patient-centered care, fosters problem-solving and encourages questioning. For example, a physician who is discharging a female patient with diabetes from a hospital stay related to blood-sugar control helps the patient by making sure she has support in place to follow the care plan, consulting with the patient’s nurse care manager and contacting the patient’s primary care physician to provide a copy of the discharge plan.

It takes time and practice to become a systems thinker. According to the AMA module, systems thinkers have 14 habits.

Systems thinkers:

  • Seek to understand the big picture.
  • Observe how elements within a system change over time, generating patterns and trends.
  • Recognize that a system’s structure generates behavior.
  • Identify the circular nature of complex cause-and-effect relationships.
  • Make meaningful connections within and between systems.
  • Change perspectives to increase understanding.
  • Surface and test assumptions.
  • Consider the issue fully and resist coming to a quick conclusion.
  • Consider how mental models affect current reality and the future.
  • Use understanding of system structure to identify possible leverage actions.
  • Consider short-term, long-term and unintended consequences of actions.
  • Pay attention to accumulations and their rates of change.
  • Recognize the impact of time delays when exploring cause-and-effect relationships.
  • Check results and change actions if needed, a process known as “successive approximation.”

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4 ways to help health systems science take root in patient care

The AMA has released the second edition of the Health Systems Science textbook, the first text that focuses on providing a fundamental understanding of how health care is delivered, how health care professionals work together to deliver that care, and how the health system can improve patient care.

Health Systems Science Review, a companion to the Health Systems Science textbook, is a first-of-its-kind review book created by the consortium and published by Elsevier.

This study tool provides case-based questions followed by discussions of answers and suggested readings—making it a valuable review resource for medical students and instructors, as well as resident physicians, hospital administrators, and nursing, allied health, and public health students.

Learn about the AMA Undergraduate Medical Education Curricular Enrichment Program for Institutions, which helps fill curricular gaps with topics such as health system science, leadership, and more while supporting tracking of learners’ progress. Request a demo.