Complex systems thinking and current impasses in health disparities research

Am J Public Health. 2011 Sep;101(9):1627-34. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2011.300149. Epub 2011 Jul 21.


Complex systems approaches have received increasing attention in public health because reductionist approaches yield limited insights in the context of dynamic systems. Most discussions have been highly abstract. There is a need to consider the application of complex systems approaches to specific research questions. I review the features of population health problems for which complex systems approaches are most likely to yield new insights, and discuss possible applications of complex systems to health disparities research. I provide illustrative examples of how complex systems approaches may help address unanswered and persistent questions regarding genetic factors, life course processes, place effects, and the impact of upstream policies. The concepts and methods of complex systems may help researchers move beyond current impasse points in health disparities research.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Environment
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease
  • Health Status Disparities*
  • Health Surveys
  • Humans
  • Public Health*
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Systems Theory*