A Qualitative, Systems Thinking Approach to Study Self-Management in Women With Migraine

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Abstract

Background

A dearth of effective and affordable treatment options has rendered nonpharmacological self-management a crucial part of living with migraine—a debilitating neurobiological condition without cure that disproportionately disables vulnerable women.

Objective

The aim of the study was to describe the development and use of a systems thinking, problem-structuring data collection approach that was applied to the study of migraine self-management with women in diverse social locations.

Methods

Two systems mapping activities were developed for use in focus groups: one to unpack a migraine episode (system support map) and the other (connection circle [CC]) to construct a mental model of self-management. Later in the process, a strengths-based problem-solving tool was developed to replace the CC.

Results

The CCs—often enlightening for affluent participants—left marginalized women feeling overwhelmed and defeated, as a solution to one challenge became the cause of another. Through constant comparison analysis, we recalibrated the approach using a theory, clinical experience, and participant feedback and replaced the CC with a strengths-based problem-solving activity highlighting relationships and trade-offs in a more agential, actionable way.

Discussion

Bringing a critical lens and strengths-based approaches to work with vulnerable populations can replace traditional deficit thinking in healthcare, developing options for leveraging resources and understanding complex health behaviors without losing sight of systemic, distributional justice issues. These systems thinking tools can provide a way to extrapolate the complexities of actual self-management behaviors and challenges faced by vulnerable women with migraine versus what they may be instructed to do by a medical model that does not always account for the social and structural determinants of equity and health.

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