The application of systems thinking in health: Why use systems thinking?

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125 Scopus citations


This paper explores the question of what systems thinking adds to the field of global health. Observing that elements of systems thinking are already common in public health research, the article discusses which of the large body of theories, methods, and tools associated with systems thinking are more useful. The paper reviews the origins of systems thinking, describing a range of the theories, methods, and tools. A common thread is the idea that the behavior of systems is governed by common principles that can be discovered and expressed. They each address problems of complexity, which is a frequent challenge in global health. The different methods and tools are suited to different types of inquiry and involve both qualitative and quantitative techniques. The paper concludes by emphasizing that explicit models used in systems thinking provide new opportunities to understand and continuously test and revise our understanding of the nature of things, including how to intervene to improve people's health.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number51
JournalHealth Research Policy and Systems
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2014


  • Complex adaptive systems
  • Complexity
  • Methods
  • Systems thinking
  • Theory
  • Tools

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Policy


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