Agent-Based Modeling in Public Health: Current Applications and Future Directions

Annu Rev Public Health. 2018 Apr 1;39:77-94. doi: 10.1146/annurev-publhealth-040617-014317. Epub 2018 Jan 12.


Agent-based modeling is a computational approach in which agents with a specified set of characteristics interact with each other and with their environment according to predefined rules. We review key areas in public health where agent-based modeling has been adopted, including both communicable and noncommunicable disease, health behaviors, and social epidemiology. We also describe the main strengths and limitations of this approach for questions with public health relevance. Finally, we describe both methodologic and substantive future directions that we believe will enhance the value of agent-based modeling for public health. In particular, advances in model validation, comparisons with other causal modeling procedures, and the expansion of the models to consider comorbidity and joint influences more systematically will improve the utility of this approach to inform public health research, practice, and policy.

Keywords: complex systems; computer models; epidemiology; population health; simulation; systems science.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Communicable Diseases / epidemiology
  • Comorbidity
  • Health Behavior
  • Humans
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Noncommunicable Diseases / epidemiology
  • Public Health*
  • Research Design*
  • Systems Analysis*