Using Complexity Theory to Guide Medical School Evaluations

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Contemporary medical school evaluations are narrow in focus and often do not consider the wider systems implications of the relationship between learning and teaching, research, clinical care, and community engagement. The result is graduates who lack the necessary knowledge and skills for the modern health care system and an educational system that is limited in its ability to learn and change.

To address this issue, the authors apply complexity theory to medical school evaluation, using four key factors—nesting, diversity, self-organization, and emergent outcomes. To help medical educators apply this evaluation approach in their own settings, the authors offer two tools—a modified program logic model and sensemaking. In sensemaking, they use the organic metaphor of the medical school as a neuron situated within a complex neural network to enable medical educators to reframe the way they think about program evaluation. The authors then offer practical guidance for applying this model, including describing the example of addressing graduates’ engagement in the health care system. The authors consider the input of teachers, the role of culture and curriculum, and the clinical care system in this example.

Medical school evaluation is reframed as an improvement science for complex social interventions (medical school is such an intervention) in this model. With complexity theory’s focus on emergent outcomes, evaluation takes on a new focus, reimagining medical students as reaching their future potential as change agents, who transform health systems and the lives of patients.

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