Qualitative systems mapping for complex public health problems: A practical guide

PLoS One. 2022 Feb 25;17(2):e0264463. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0264463. eCollection 2022.


Systems mapping methods are increasingly used to study complex public health issues. Visualizing the causal relationships within a complex adaptive system allows for more than developing a holistic and multi-perspective overview of the situation. It is also a way of understanding the emergent, self-organizing dynamics of a system and how they can be influenced. This article describes a concrete approach for developing and analysing a systems map of a complex public health issue drawing on well-accepted methods from the field of social science while incorporating the principles of systems thinking and transdisciplinarity. Using our case study on HIV drug resistance in sub-Saharan Africa as an example, this article provides a practical guideline on how to map a public health problem as a complex adaptive system in order to uncover the drivers, feedback-loops and other dynamics behind the problem. Qualitative systems mapping can help researchers and policy makers to gain deeper insights in the root causes of the problem and identify complexity-informed intervention points.

MeSH terms

  • Africa
  • Anti-Retroviral Agents / therapeutic use
  • Drug Resistance, Viral
  • HIV Infections / drug therapy
  • HIV Infections / pathology
  • Humans
  • Policy Making
  • Public Health*
  • Systems Analysis*


  • Anti-Retroviral Agents

Grants and funding

The author(s) received no specific funding for this work.