The need for a complex systems model of evidence for public health

June 2017

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Key points

  • We are faced with many big health challenges in our society. Their complex nature is an ongoing problem for public health research and policy.
  • Such challenges often involve multiple factors operating over many decades in systems that adapt as changes occur. For example, the distribution of obesity in a population might be impacted by changes to food, employment, transport or economic systems.
  • The traditional linear model of research is not suited to tackling these challenges. This is because it focuses largely on changes in individuals, not the population as a whole, and because it tends to look at isolated interventions rather than the contexts in which they take place.
  • There is growing recognition that we need a new evidence model that looks at public health problems, and our potential responses, in terms of a complex systems approach.

The Health Foundation is working with Dr Harry Rutter from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to develop a new model of evidence that will inform public health research, policy and practice.

As part of this work Dr Rutter and co-authors from the Health Foundation and around the world have published a Viewpoint paper in The Lancet that outlines the need for new approaches to designing and evaluating population-level interventions to improve health.

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