How complexity science can inform scale-up and spread in health care: understanding the role of self-organization in variation across local contexts

Soc Sci Med. 2013 Sep:93:194-202. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2012.05.040. Epub 2012 Jul 4.


Health care systems struggle to scale-up and spread effective practices across diverse settings. Failures in scale-up and spread (SUS) are often attributed to a lack of consideration for variation in local contexts among different health care delivery settings. We argue that SUS occurs within complex systems and that self-organization plays an important role in the success, or failure, of SUS. Self-organization is a process whereby local interactions give rise to patterns of organizing. These patterns may be stable or unstable, and they evolve over time. Self-organization is a major contributor to local variations across health care delivery settings. Thus, better understanding of self-organization in the context of SUS is needed. We re-examine two cases of successful SUS: 1) the application of a mobile phone short message service intervention to improve adherence to medications during HIV treatment scale up in resource-limited settings, and 2) MRSA prevention in hospital inpatient settings in the United States. Based on insights from these cases, we discuss the role of interdependencies and sensemaking in leveraging self-organization in SUS initiatives. We argue that self-organization, while not completely controllable, can be influenced, and that improving interdependencies and sensemaking among SUS stakeholders is a strategy for facilitating self-organization processes that increase the probability of spreading effective practices across diverse settings.

Keywords: Complexity science; HIV; Implementation science; Interdependencies; MRSA; Scale-up and spread; Self-organization; Sensemaking; USA.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Community-Institutional Relations*
  • Cross Infection / prevention & control
  • Delivery of Health Care / organization & administration*
  • HIV Infections / drug therapy
  • Humans
  • Medication Adherence / statistics & numerical data
  • Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus
  • Organizational Case Studies
  • Poverty Areas
  • Staphylococcal Infections / prevention & control
  • Text Messaging
  • United States