Complex adaptive chronic care

Carmel Martin, Joachim Sturmberg

Research output: Contribution to journalReview ArticleResearchpeer-review

54 Citations (Scopus)


Background The Chronic Care Model (CCM) is widely taken up as the universal operational framework for redesigning health systems to address the increasing chronic disease burden of an ageing population. Chronic care encompasses health promotion, prevention, self management, disease control, treatment and palliation to address 'chronicity' of long journeys through disease, illness and care in the varying contexts of complex health systems. Yet at an operational level, CCM activities are predominantly based on an evidence-base of discreet chronic disease interventions in specific settings; and their demonstrable impact is limited to processes of select disease management such as diabetes in specific disease management programs. Aims This paper proposes a framework that makes sense of the nature of chronicity and its multiple dimensions beyond disease and argues for a set of building blocks and leverage points that should constitute the starting points for 'redesign'? Findings Complex Adaptive Chronic Care is proposed as an idea for an explanatory and implementation framework for addressing chronicity in existing and future chronic care models. Chronicity is overtly conceptualized to encompass the phenomena of an individual journey, with simple and complicated, complex and chaotic phases, through long term asymptomatic disease to bodily dysfunction and illness, located in family and communities. Chronicity encompasses trajectories of self-care and health care, as health, illness and disease co-exist and co-evolve in the setting of primary care, local care networks and at times institutions. A systems approach to individuals in their multi-layered networks making sense of and optimizing experiences of their chronic illness would build on core values and agency around a local vision of health, empowerment of individuals and adaptive leadership, and it responds in line with the local values inherent in the community's disease-based knowledge and the local service's history and dynamics. Complex Adaptive Chronic Care exceeds the current notions of disease management as an endpoint. Primary care team members are system adaptors in partnership with individuals constructing their care and system leadership in response to chronic illness, and enable healthy resilience as well as personal healing and support. Outcomes of complex adaptive chronic care are the emergence of health in individuals and communities through adaptability, self-organization and empowerment. Discussion Chronic care reform from within a complex adaptive system framework is bottom up and emergent and stands in stark contrast to (but has to co-exist with) the prevailing protocol based disease care rewarding selective surrogate indicators of disease control. Frameworks such as the Chronic Care Model provide guidance, but do not replace individual experience, local adaptive leadership and responsiveness. The awareness of complexity means opening up problems to a different reality demanding different set of questions and approaches to answer them.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)571-577
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2009


  • Chronic care
  • Chronic disease
  • Chronic illness
  • Complexity
  • Framework
  • Health system
  • Primary care

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