Background/purpose: Teamwork involving multiple disciplines is increasingly emphasized in health research, services, education and policy. The terms multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary are increasingly used in the literature, but are ambiguously defined and interchangeably used. This paper is the first of two in a series. It discusses the definitions, objectives, and evidence of effectiveness of such teamwork.
Methods: The paper is a literature review based on dictionaries, and Google and MEDLINE (1982-2006) searches.
Results: Multidisciplinarity draws on knowledge from different disciplines but stays within their boundaries. Interdisciplinarity analyzes, synthesizes and harmonizes links between disciplines into a coordinated and coherent whole. Transdisciplinarity integrates the natural, social and health sciences in a humanities context, and transcends their traditional boundaries. The objectives of multiple disciplinary approaches are to resolve real world or complex problems, to provide different perspectives on problems, to create comprehensive research questions, to develop concensus clinical definitions and guidelines, and to provide comprehensive health services. Multiple disciplinary teamwork has both benefits and drawbacks.
Conclusion: The three terms refer to the involvement of multiple disciplines to varying degrees on the same continuum. The common words for multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary are additive, interactive, and holistic, respectively. With their own specific meanings, these terms should not be used interchangeably. The more general term "multiple disciplinary" is suggested for when the nature of involvement of multiple disciplines is unknown or unspecified. While multiple disciplinary teamwork is appropriate for complex problems, it is not always necessary in every single project.