Integration of Systems Thinking in GW Curriculum

Margaret Plack, PT, DPT, EdD

No two people think alike. Although this allows for creativity and diversity, sometimes differing perspectives can be problematic in the realm of health care. For this reason, there is a need to establish a common, collaborative language and develop appropriate teaching strategies for health care professionals to ensure patients receive the best care possible and that providers address all aspects of recovery.

Since she arrived to the George Washington University (GW) in 2004, Margaret Plack, PT, DPT, EdD, has collaborated with other health care educational researchers in the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Plack, a professor and researcher in the Doctorate of Physical Therapy (DPT) Program, has collaborated with GW health care professionals in medicine, nursing, physician assistant studies, and speech-language pathology. After ongoing discussions about systems-based practice in current graduate medical education, Plack and her colleagues identified a disconnect in how professions understand and implement this concept. As a result, they conducted a study examining how “systems thinking” is taught and assessed in different professions.

Systems thinking is a discipline of study that explores the interrelatedness of various components of a complex environment. In health care, systems thinking helps individuals consider their patients and the issues they face.

“It is a real challenge for most patients to navigate our complex health care environment. If we are not their advocates because we are not thinking about all the integrative and sometimes disjointed and dysfunctional systems that patients must manage, then we are at fault,” Plack said. Specific to graduate PT education, it is common to focus on how the body systems react in response to certain disease processes and impairments. However, according to Plack, it’s “only the tip of the iceberg when we think about all our patients must deal with when entering the healthcare system.”

Plack and her colleagues’ research goal was to provide recommendations on how educators across medical professions can incorporate systems-based practice concepts into curriculum more effectively. Early exposure to this type of in-depth thinking will help ensure students incorporate it into their practice, creating more personalized, patient-centered care.One example of implementing systems thinking into GW’s curriculum is Interprofessional Education Day. An event that brings together GW medical, physician assistant, physical therapy, nursing, and speech and language pathology students to work on patient cases. “As physical therapists, we never work in isolation, so it was valuable to gain an understanding and appreciation for other health professionals early on,” said Haley Yohn, a second-year DPT student.

Plack and her team developed a monograph, “Systems Thinking in the Healthcare Professions: A Guide for Educators and Clinician,” to provide a common language and tools to help educators incorporate these concepts into health care education. The ultimate goal is to achieve better patient care and outcomes.

“Systems thinking is not just a tool or a project, it is much bigger than that. It is a way of thinking and viewing the world,” Plack said.