Nursing Students Learn to Put Chaos Theory in its Place

By Ed Carpenter, Office of Marketing Communications Posted Wed, 05/13/2015 - 17:00

Does knowing Chaos Theory produce better nurses? The mathematical postulate is an integral part of USF’s online Master of Science in Nursing (RN-to-MSN) program, where nurses learn to take charge of complex and chaotic emergency situations to improve patient care.

The mathematical principle popularized in the movie Jurassic Park is anything but simple, however. It explains how minute changes in the atmosphere and ecosystems can radically alter weather patterns and the spread of vegetation across a continent. The same principle, it turns out, helps explain how small differences in care can lead to dramatically different patient health outcomes, says Elena Capella, USF assistant professor of nursing and director of the online RN-to-MSN.

People and their complexities

Patients don’t always follow directions, they come from different backgrounds, and they might misunderstand or fail to communicate clearly. There are also unanticipated problems with care coordination, Capella says. In a rapidly filling hospital emergency room, those factors are amplified by ambulances, patients, physicians, and nurses dealing with multiple patient crises.

"Nurses try and be organized and direct in our approach, we have a lot of science, we have a lot of protocols, we have all this standardization, but we’re dealing with people — and people introduce all sorts of complexities to the picture,” Capella says.

That’s why USF’s RN-to-MSN program teaches nursing students to strive for control but to realize there is always a level of chaos in what they do — so managing it is key. 

Capella teaches her students to draw on their own experiences, since most are working nurses, having them step back to assess the situation when chaos threatens to veer out of control. “That’s when a level-headed clinical leader needs to direct activities to add focus to the chaos. If they don’t, then there is a danger that the emergency room will have to shut down and divert patients to other hospitals — which is a worst case scenario,” Capella says. 

Finding efficiencies

USF teaches students to be those levelheaded leaders who direct care in complex circumstances, Capella says. They are taught advanced techniques for handling chaotic situations and to rapidly assess, prioritize, decide, and direct.

“Chaos Theory is such an important concept for the contemporary caregiver,” says, Curtis Peterson ’15, a student in the program who oversees a stroke ward at Dignity Health in Sacramento as a neurovascular coordinator. “We are in a position to have to deliver increasingly complex care with fewer resources each year. It would be easy to think of this seemingly ‘chaotic’ situation as impossible to deal with, but by embracing the chaos, patterns of efficiency can be found.” 

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