Care work and health system complexity

Two interesting collections of papers have caught my eye in the last week or so. Davina Allen has edited an online volume of articles, all previously published in the journal Sociology of Health & Illness, addressing the sociology of care work. In her editorial Davina sets the scene with reference to the Francis Inquiries and concludes with this:

[…] in the wake of Francis the predominant response to raising the quality of care and compassion has been to focus on the attributes of individuals and wider regulatory arrangements. As we have seen, however, the kind of care that can be provided depends fundamentally on the social organisation of care work, which in turn hinges on what we (society) are prepared to pay for. Francis has called for national fundamental care standards, but this requires more careful attention to the models of care-giving practice that will sustain them, including care-giver roles, the inter-relationship of care work components and features of the organisational context. The papers in this collection reveal there are no easy answers to these questions, but the insights they yield make an important contribution to these debates. In bringing the papers together in this virtual special issue the aim is to both raise the profile of the individual contributions, but also their collective value to this critical issue of public and policy concern.

Meanwhile, Tim Tenbensel, Stephen Birch and Sarah Curtis have edited a special issue of Social Science & Medicine devoted to the study of complexity in health and health care systems. I have a personal interest here, as it is in this collection of new papers that my article Connections and consequences in complex systems: insights from a case study of the emergence and local impact of crisis resolution and home treatment services appears. Describing himself as ‘a sympathetic outsider to complexity theory’, Tim Tenbensel in his editorial closes with this:

[…] perhaps the most important conceptual issue for complexity theory seems to be the place of ‘top-down’ interventions in complex systems. Are they part of the landscape of complexity, or are they things that ‘impede’ the unfolding of self-organising, emergent phenomena? More sophisticated applications of complexity suggest the former answer, yet the will to control through linear, rational, prescriptive mechanisms remains an ever-present shadow – something that should be minimised – because it this a defining trope of complexity theory applied to the social sciences. This theoretical challenge is perhaps most pressing in contexts in which health services are directly funded from public sources.

My apologies to the doctoral students whose ‘complex systems’ module I taught a few weeks ago, who may erroneously have thought that I knew what I was talking about, but like Tim Tenbensel I regard myself as being a relative newcomer to this whole complexity approach. So I for one am looking forward to reading the other papers in this new collection, and to learning plenty that is new.

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