Systems science methods in public health: dynamics, networks, and agents

Annu Rev Public Health. 2012 Apr:33:357-76. doi: 10.1146/annurev-publhealth-031210-101222. Epub 2012 Jan 3.


Complex systems abound in public health. Complex systems are made up of heterogeneous elements that interact with one another, have emergent properties that are not explained by understanding the individual elements of the system, persist over time, and adapt to changing circumstances. Public health is starting to use results from systems science studies to shape practice and policy, for example in preparing for global pandemics. However, systems science study designs and analytic methods remain underutilized and are not widely featured in public health curricula or training. In this review we present an argument for the utility of systems science methods in public health, introduce three important systems science methods (system dynamics, network analysis, and agent-based modeling), and provide three case studies in which these methods have been used to answer important public health science questions in the areas of infectious disease, tobacco control, and obesity.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Delivery of Health Care, Integrated*
  • Health Policy*
  • Health Promotion
  • Humans
  • Public Health Administration*
  • Public Health*
  • United States