Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate Complexity science

The challenge of complexity in health care

BMJ 2001; 323 doi: (Published 15 September 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;323:625
  1. Paul E Plsek, director (,
  2. Trisha Greenhalgh, professor of primary health careb
  1. a Paul E Plsek & Associates Inc, 1005 Allenbrook Lane, Roswell, GA 30075, USA
  2. b University College London, London N19 3UA
  1. Correspondence to: P E Plsek

    This is the first in a series of four articles

    Across all disciplines, at all levels, and throughout the world, health care is becoming more complex. Just 30 years ago the typical general practitioner in the United Kingdom practised from privately owned premises with a minimum of support staff, subscribed to a single journal, phoned up a specialist whenever he or she needed advice, and did around an hour's paperwork per week. The specialist worked in a hospital, focused explicitly on a particular system of the body, was undisputed leader of his or her “firm,” and generally left administration to the administrators. These individuals often worked long hours, but most of their problems could be described in biomedical terms and tackled using the knowledge and skills they had acquired at medical school.

    You used to go to the doctor when you felt ill, to find out what was wrong with you and get some medicine that would make you better. These days you are as likely to be there because the doctor (or the nurse, the care coordinator, or even the computer) has sent for you. Your treatment will now be dictated by the evidence—but this may well be imprecise, equivocal, or conflicting. Your declared values and preferences may be used, formally or informally, in a shared management decision about your illness. The solution to your problem is unlikely to come in a bottle and may well involve a multidisciplinary team.

    Not so long ago public health was the science of controlling infectious diseases by identifying the “cause” (an alien organism) and taking steps to remove or contain it. Today's epidemics have fuzzier boundaries (one is even known as “syndrome X”1): they are the result of the interplay of genetic predisposition, environmental context, and lifestyle choices.

    The experience of …

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