Background: Systems medicine has become a key word in biomedical research. Although it is often referred to as P4-(predictive, preventive, personalized and participatory)-medicine, it still lacks a clear definition and is open to interpretation. This conceptual lack of clarity complicates the scientific and public discourse on chances, risks and limits of Systems Medicine and may lead to unfounded hopes. Against this background, our goal was to develop a sufficiently precise and widely acceptable definition of Systems Medicine.
Methods: In a first step, PubMed was searched using the keyword "systems medicine". A data extraction tabloid was developed putting forward a means/ends-division. Full-texts of articles containing Systems Medicine in title or abstract were screened for definitions. Definitions were extracted; their semantic elements were assigned as either means or ends. To reduce complexity of the resulting list, summary categories were developed inductively. In a second step, we applied six criteria for adequate definitions (necessity, non-circularity, non-redundancy, consistency, non-vagueness, and coherence) to these categories to derive a so-called précising definition of Systems Medicine.
Results: We identified 185 articles containing the term Systems Medicine in title or abstract. 67 contained at least one definition of Systems Medicine. In 98 definitions, we found 114 means and 132 ends. From these we derived the précising definition: Systems Medicine is an approach seeking to improve medical research (i.e. the understanding of complex processes occurring in diseases, pathologies and health states as well as innovative approaches to drug discovery) and health care (i.e. prevention, prediction, diagnosis and treatment) through stratification by means of Systems Biology (i.e. data integration, modeling, experimentation and bioinformatics). Our study also revealed the visionary character of Systems Medicine.
Conclusions: Our insights, on the one hand, allow for a realistic identification of actual ethical as well as legal issues arising in the context of Systems Medicine and, in consequence, for a realistic debate of questions concerning its matter and (future) handling. On the other hand, they help avoiding unfounded hopes and unrealistic expectations. This especially holds for goals like improving patient participation which are intensely debated in the context of Systems Medicine, however not implied in the concept.
Keywords: Bioinformatics; Conceptual vagueness; Data integration; Modeling; Patient participation; Stratification.