Complexity in Epidemiology and Public Health: Addressing Complex Health Problems Through a Mix of Epidemiologic Methods and Data

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  • Rod, Naja Hulvej
  • Alex Broadbent
  • Morten Hulvej Rod
  • Federica Russo
  • Onyebuchi A. Arah
  • Karien Stronks

Public health and the underlying disease processes are complex, often involving the interaction of biologic, social, psychologic, economic, and other processes that may be nonlinear and adaptive and have other features of complex systems. There is therefore a need to push the boundaries of public health beyond single-factor data analysis and expand the capacity of research methodology to tackle real-world complexities. This article sets out a way to operationalize complex systems thinking in public health, with a particular focus on how epidemiologic methods and data can contribute towards this end. Our proposed framework comprises three core dimensions-patterns, mechanisms, and dynamics-along which complex systems may be conceptualized. These dimensions cover seven key features of complex systems-emergence, interactions, nonlinearity, interference, feedback loops, adaptation, and evolution. We relate this framework to examples of methods and data traditionally used in epidemiology. We conclude that systematic production of knowledge on complex health issues may benefit from: formulation of research questions and programs in terms of the core dimensions we identify, as a comprehensive way to capture crucial features of complex systems; integration of traditional epidemiologic methods with systems methodology such as computational simulation modeling; interdisciplinary work; and continued investment in a wide range of data types. We believe that the proposed framework can support the systematic production of knowledge on complex health problems, with the use of epidemiology and other disciplines. This will help us understand emergent health phenomena, identify vulnerable population groups, and detect leverage points for promoting public health.

Original languageEnglish
JournalEpidemiology (Cambridge, Mass.)
Issue number4
Pages (from-to)505-514
Number of pages10
Publication statusPublished - 2023

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