Systems science methods in public health: what can they contribute to our understanding of and response to the cost-of-living crisis?

Andreas Höhn, Jonathan Stokes, Roxana Pollack, Jennifer Boyd, Cristina Chueca del cerro, Corinna Elsenbroich, Alison Heppenstall, Annika Hjelmskog, Elizabeth Inyang, Daniel Kopasker, Shreya Sonthalia, Rachel m Thomson, Kashif Zia, Srinivasa vittal Katikireddi, Petra Meier

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Background Many complex public health evidence gaps cannot be fully resolved using only conventional public health methods. We aim to familiarise public health researchers with selected systems science methods that may contribute to a better understanding of complex phenomena and lead to more impactful interventions. As a case study, we choose the current cost-of-living crisis, which affects disposable income as a key structural determinant of health.
Methods We first outline the potential role of systems science methods for public health research more generally, then provide an overview of the complexity of the cost-of-living crisis as a specific case study. We propose how four systems science methods (soft systems, microsimulation, agent-based and system dynamics models) could be applied to provide more in-depth understanding. For each method, we illustrate its unique knowledge contributions, and set out one or more options for studies that could help inform policy and practice responses.
Results Due to its fundamental impact on the determinants of health, while limiting resources for population-level interventions, the cost-of-living
crisis presents a complex public health challenge. When confronted with complexity, non-linearity, feedback loops and adaptation processes, systems methods allow a deeper understanding and forecasting of the interactions and spill-over effects common with real-world interventions and policies.
Conclusions Systems science methods provide a rich methodological toolbox that complements our traditional public health methods. This toolbox may be particularly useful in early stages of the current cost-of-living crisis:
for understanding the situation, developing solutions and sandboxing potential responses to improve population health.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)610-616
JournalJournal of Epidemiology and Community Health
Issue number9
Early online date10 Aug 2023
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2023


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