So What is a System?

How many times a day do you hear the word “system”? If you work in healthcare, quite a bit! The examples are seemingly endless—computer systems, payments systems, clinical systems, the overarching “healthcare system” along with the implicit influence of family systems, and, of course, the reason we exist—preventive and acute care for our body systems. 

Not only are systems ubiquitous in healthcare, the expectation to improve them is constant and our tendency to blame them for all things frustrating is tempting. In short, we might feel as if we are at the mercy of a faceless force controlling every aspect of our lives. 

Systems, however, are not innately menacing. In fact, despite being the catchall scapegoat, few people actually understand basic systems principles. Improved understanding can help navigate complex situations, both at home and at work. This is because the characteristics of systems are universal, meaning that every system (yep, all of them) abide by the same rules. 

So what is a system? 

When asked, most people can name that systems are “simply” a bunch of interconnected parts, often with a common goal or purpose. I emphasize “simply” because acknowledging, accepting, and even embracing interconnection is the key to everything that follows. 

As a systems approach, the Flinders Program recognizes the interconnection within people’s lives. This interconnection spans beyond disease to our social and emotional worlds, as well as how health providers care for themselves, and its impact on the healing relationship.

In the next two posts, I overview two primary principles, or rules, of systems—wholeness and openness—and how understanding these concepts offer perspectives to help explain larger patterns of behavior in our daily lives, and particularly within healthcare. 

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