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Taking a systems approach to prevention

The causes of chronic diseases are complex and varied. Many interconnected factors contribute to the decisions people make about their behaviour, including their background, their environment and their ability to make healthy choices.

This complexity means we need a new way to tackle the problem of chronic disease. To effectively prevent complex chronic health problems in the long term, we need to recognise the role of social, economic and environmental factors and how each of these interacts. This requires a systems approach.

A system is a set of interrelated parts that form a whole. A system is not the sum of its parts, but rather the product of their interaction.

Systems thinking is way to make sense of a complex system, by exploring the relationships, boundaries and perspectives in a system. It can help us approach otherwise unmanageable problems by providing:

  • A different perspective (seeing all parts, and their interconnections)
  • Tools and methods that can be used to explore the system, keeping in mind the dynamic nature of the parts and their relationships.

Systems approaches are the specific tools and methods we can use to better understand the system and the complex problems within it. They are particularly useful because they do not require us to know everything about the system before engaging in problem-solving activities.

To change health behaviour, we need a range of governments, organisations and individuals to work together in a coordinated way to attack the problem from many different angles and in dynamic, flexible ways. Applying systems thinking and systems approaches enables us to create an environment that supports people to make better health decisions and avoid chronic disease.

Read more about how to use systems thinking

Read more about the Prevention Centre’s approach to systems thinking