University of Tasmania
Examining the nexus between medical education and complexity_ BMC.pdf (1.9 MB)

Examining the nexus between medical education and complexity: a systematic review to inform practice and research

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journal contribution
posted on 2023-12-11, 03:57 authored by Kathryn Ogden, Susan KilpatrickSusan Kilpatrick, Shandell ElmerShandell Elmer
BACKGROUND: Medical education is a multifarious endeavour integrating a range of pedagogies and philosophies. Complexity as a science or theory ('complexity') signals a move away from a reductionist paradigm to one which appreciates that interactions in multi-component systems, such as healthcare systems, can result in adaptive and emergent outcomes. This examination of the nexus between medical education and complexity theory aims to discover ways that complexity theory can inform medical education and medical education research. METHODS: A structured literature review was conducted to examine the nexus between medical education and complexity; 5 databases were searched using relevant terms. Papers were included if they engaged fully with complexity as a science or theory and were significantly focused on medical education. All types of papers were included, including conceptual papers (e.g. opinion and theoretical discussions), case studies, program evaluations and empirical research. A narrative and thematic synthesis was undertaken to create a deep understanding of the use of complexity in medical education. RESULTS: Eighty-three papers were included; the majority were conceptual papers. The context and theoretical underpinnings of complexity as a relevant theory for medical education were identified. Bibliographic and temporal observations were noted regarding the entry of complexity into medical education. Complexity was relied upon as a theoretical framework for empirical studies covering a variety of elements within medical education including: knowledge and learning theories; curricular, program and faculty development; program evaluation and medical education research; assessment and admissions; professionalism and leadership; and learning for systems, about systems and in systems. DISCUSSION: There is a call for greater use of theory by medical educators. Complexity within medical education is established, although not widespread. Individualistic cultures of medicine and comfort with reductionist epistemologies challenges its introduction. However, complexity was found to be a useful theory across a range of areas by a limited number of authors and is increasingly used by medical educators and medical education researchers. This review has further conceptualized how complexity is being used to support medical education and medical education research. CONCLUSION: This literature review can assist in understanding how complexity can be useful in medical educationalists' practice.


Publication title








Article number

ARTN 494








Education, Medicine, Nursing, Office of the Faculty of Education, TIA - Research Institute



Publication status

  • Published

Place of publication


Event Venue

Tasmanian School of Medicine, University of Tasmania, Launceston, TAS, Australia.

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© The Author(s) 2023. . Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article’s Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article’s Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this licence, visit The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver (http://creativeco applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated in a credit line to the data

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