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Conceptualising and assessing health system resilience to shocks: a cross-disciplinary view

, Sadie Bell, Zaid Chalabi, Fouad M. Fouad, Reinhard Mechler, Andrada Tomoaia-Cotisel, , Josephine Borghi
Published: 13 May 2022

Abstract: Health systems worldwide face major challenges in anticipating, planning for and responding to shocks from infectious disease epidemics, armed conflict, climatic and other crises. Although the literature on health system resilience has grown substantially in recent years, major uncertainties remain concerning approaches to resilience conceptualisation and measurement. This narrative review revisits literatures from a range of fields outside health to identify lessons relevant to health systems. Four key insights emerge. Firstly, shocks can only be understood by clarifying how, where and over what timescale they interact with a system of interest, and the dynamic effects they produce within it. Shock effects are contingent on historical path-dependencies, and on the presence of factors or system pathways (e.g. financing models, health workforce capabilities or supply chain designs) that may amplify or dampen impact in unexpected ways. Secondly, shocks often produce cascading effects across multiple scales, whereas the focus of much of the health resilience literature has been on macro-level, national systems. In reality, health systems bring together interconnected sub-systems across sectors and geographies, with different components, behaviours and sometimes even objectives – all influencing how a system responds to a shock. Thirdly, transformability is an integral feature of resilient social systems: cross-scale interactions help explain how systems can show both resilience and transformational capability at the same time. We illustrate these first three findings by extending the socioecological concept of adaptive cycles in social systems to health, using the example of maternal and child health service delivery. Finally, we argue that dynamic modelling approaches, under-utilised in research on health system resilience to date, have significant promise for identification of shock-moderating or shock-amplifying pathways, for understanding effects at multiple levels and ultimately for building resilience.
Keywords: shocks / health system / amplifying / effects across multiple / child / adaptive / building / models / system resilience

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