Complexity Theory as Applied to Nursing

Topics: Chaos theory, Nursing, Complexity Pages: 11 (4012 words) Published: February 22, 2006
Complexity Theory as Applied to Nursing, 2005

Abstract

Many conventional ideas about the world we live in have been shaken to their foundations by the emerging concepts of chaos and complexity. Insights are now being gained from the application of complexity theory into phenomena varying in scale from the natural sciences such as biology to the concept of caring in the nurse-patient relationship. These new scientific ideas have significant implications for the theory and practice of nursing. This paper will cover four key concepts from complexity theory that will be introduced as relevance to nursing. These include: unpredictable dynamic systems; the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; fuzzy and permeable boundaries; and, the centrality of paradox in all of life.

Introduction

Many conventional ideas about the world we live in have been shaken to their foundations by the emerging concepts of chaos and complexity. These new scientific theories are being applied with startling results in the social and natural sciences, particularly in the biological field. Insights are now being gained from the application of complexity theory into phenomena varying in scale from ventricular fibrillation to the spread of epidemics to the concept of caring in the nurse-patient relationship. Nursing therefore needs to be aware of these new scientific ideas as they have significant implications for the theory and practice of nursing. Chaos and complexity theory encompasses a large field. However, in this paper four key ideas will be introduced which are of relevance to nursing: 1.Dynamic systems behave in an apparently unpredictable and chaotic fashion, making predictions of future behavior impossible unless the rules governing chaotic systems are understood. Health can be argued to be a dynamic system. 2.The whole is greater than the sum of the parts; therefore reductionism is severely limited in its use as a tool in health care. 3.Boundaries between dynamic systems are naturally fragmented and fuzzy, consequently trying to draw sharp lines between nursing and medicine, for example, is fruitless. 4.Paradox is part of life and health care is no exception, both at the micro and macro levels; therefore it is important for nurses and other health care professionals to understand paradox and its central nature in all matters. Dynamic Systems and Chaos

One of the earliest and most accessible works which popularized chaos theory came from Gleick (1988) (Stacey, Douglas, & Shaw, 2002). He points out that science had in the past assumed that the real world progressed in a predictable way, governed by laws and mathematical formulae which allowed accurate predictions to be made. The growth in computer power enabled scientists to push their equations further as more elaborate calculations became possible. This led to the discovery by some scientists that, although they thought they understood some types of systems, when they tried to run them forward and predict future behavior, very strange things happened. Predicting the weather with any accuracy beyond a few days, for example, defied the most powerful computers, despite a solid understanding of the laws governing the behavior of the atmosphere. It became apparent that in certain systems what happens next is heavily dependent on what happened last. These systems are very sensitive to feedback and even the slightest variation can become magnified to produce major disturbances. This is known as sensitive dependence upon initial conditions or the ‘butterfly effect' – so called because it has been said that a butterfly flapping its wings in the tropics can cause disturbances in air flow which become magnified so many times over by sensitive feedback mechanisms, that the result several weeks later is a tropical hurricane! This notion is central to chaos theory (Stacey, Douglas, & Shaw, 2002). Such systems are known as dynamic systems and are distinct from linear systems which...

References: Coveney P, Highfield R (1995) Frontiers of Complexity; The Search for Order in a Chaotic World. New York NY, Fawcett Columbine.
Edmnonds, B. (2001) What is Complexity? - The philosophy of complexity per se with application to some examples in evolution. Centre for Policy Modeling, Manchester Metropolitan University. [Internet] Available from:
[Accessed June 10, 2005]
Ford P. & Walsh M (1994) Nursing Through the Looking Glass, New Rituals for Old. Oxford, Butterworth Heinemann.
Freedman, D. H. (1992) Is management still a science? Harvard Business Review. Vol. 70 (6) November-December, pp. 26-35.
Goodwin, B
Haupt, J. (2003) Applying Complexity Science to Health and Health Care. Center for the Study of Health Care. [Internet] Available from: [Accessed June 10, 2005]
Hurst, D., and Zimmerman, B
Jones, P. (2000) An Introduction to Chaos. [Internet] Available from:
, [Accessed June 10, 2005]
Mendelson J & Blumenthal E, (2000), Chaos Theory and Fractals, [Internet] Available from: http://www.mathjmendl.org [Accessed June 8, 2005]
Pediani R (1996) Chaos and evolution in nursing research
Ray M (1998) Complexity and nursing science. Nursing ScienceQuarterly. 11 (3), pp. 91-93.
Registered Nurses Association of British Columbia [Internet] Available from: [Accessed June 10, 2005]
United Kingdom Central Council for Nursing, Midwifery and Health Visiting (1992) Scope of Professional Practice
Stacey, R.D. (2002/2003) Organizations as Complex Responsive Processes of Relating. Journal of Innovative Management. [Internet] 8 (2), pp. 25-39. Available from: ABI/ Inform Global [Accessed June 8, 2005]
Stacey, R
Van Sell, S.L. & Kalofissudis, I.A. (2001) The Evolving Essence of the Science of Nursing, A Complexity Integration Nursing Theory [Internet] Available from: [Accessed June 11, 2005]
Continue Reading

Please join StudyMode to read the full document

You May Also Find These Documents Helpful

  • Nursing theory Essay
  • nursing theory Essay
  • Essay on nursing theory
  • Complexity Theory Essay
  • Ethical Theories of Nursing Essay
  • Nursing Theory Analysis Essay
  • Nursing Theory Research Paper
  • Nursing Theory Essay

Become a StudyMode Member

Sign Up - It's Free