Improving public health: New report asks where next for a systems approach?

A new report from the Academy of Medical Sciences and the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences calls for action to improve the use of ‘systems approaches’ to improve global health. A systems approach is when a range of different but coordinated interventions are used to solve a complex problem.

The report notes that while global life expectancy has increased over the previous century, healthy life span has not increased at the same rate. Despite our growing knowledge of human biology and medicine, some health challenges remain difficult to tackle.

Professor Susan Jebb FMedSci, Professor of Diet and Population Health, University of Oxford was Co-Chair of the Expert Group who developed the report, said:

“There are many factors that determine whether we are mentally and physically healthy, and they are all interlinked.

 “Unfortunately, this means there are rarely quick fixes to help tackle health challenges such as obesity, heart disease or health inequalities.

 “Taking a systems approach to improving health has a lot of potential, but to really make a difference we need to build a stronger evidence base, a global community of experts and policy makers and target funding to priority areas.

 We want public health experts and policy makers to use this report to drive change that will lead to better global health and reduce growing health inequalities.”

 Physical and mental health are influenced by a wide range of interconnected factors. These include an individual’s biology and psychology, social and financial circumstances and the environment and community they live in. So improving physical and mental health often requires a coordinated and wide ranging (systems) approach. The report looked into the factors that were holding back the use of a systems approach to improve health.

The report identified three priority areas to advance this field of research:

  • Build the evidence base: Synthesise existing evidence on systems-based approaches in public health, as well as generate new evidence of added value.
  • Build a community: Develop a global community of practice for systems approaches in public health, to connect researchers and other key stakeholders, including policymakers and public health practitioners.
  • Facilitate change: Target funding for systems approaches to address public health challenges, and for community- and capacity building activities.

The Academy of Medical Sciences worked with the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences to establish a small, international Expert Group to scope out the current state of systems-based public health research and practice and to identify what steps could be taken to advance the field. The project was funded by Wellcome and the Health Foundation.

Please see the right hand side of this page to download the full report. 

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