Variation is a prevalent aspect of healthcare systems that can impact patient care and outcomes. From the different symptoms and diseases patients present with to the diverse skills and motivations of healthcare staff, variation can be seen in numerous aspects of healthcare.

There are two main types of variation: natural and artificial. Natural variation is inherent in healthcare systems and arises from factors such as patient demographics, arrival times of emergency patients, and variations in patient symptoms. On the other hand, artificial variation is created by the way healthcare systems are organised and managed. Factors contributing to artificial variation include scheduling of services, working hours of staff, and the order in which patients are seen and treated.

Understanding and managing variation is crucial for effective healthcare system management. To do so, it is important to identify the sources of variation. This knowledge enables healthcare professionals to determine appropriate actions and interventions.

Reducing variation is particularly important in addressing delays in healthcare services. Waiting lists can accumulate when the demand for work exceeds the capacity to handle it. This mismatch is influenced by both the variation in demand for work and the variation in the capacity to manage it. By managing and reducing variation, healthcare providers can minimise unnecessary delays and improve the pace at which patients progress through their care pathways.

Statistical Process Control (SPC) is a tool that can be used to analyse variation in healthcare systems. By applying statistical methodologies, SPC helps identify predictable and unpredictable variation and provides insights on how to address them effectively.