A systems approach to Public Health
What is a systems approach, and how does it inform our work to understand and improve Public Health?
Systems thinking is everywhere: researchers in healthcare, biology, engineering, management, and computer science – among many others – have come to the realisation that understanding individual elements to an ever-greater level of detail will not alone help us explain how and why the world works. However, approaching whole-systems understanding with both academic rigour and an eye on improvement is a significant challenge. In Cambridge, we draw on an interdisciplinary approach to bring lessons from the fields of engineering and design to inform our research into Public Health.
The world is full of systems – individual elements acting together to produce results not obtainable by the same elements alone. These elements can include people, processes, information, organisations and services, as well as software, hardware and other systems. At the heart of understanding these systems is an understanding of people; their needs, their limitations, and their skills. Public Health systems are people focussed – they should function to improve population health and be accessible to as many people as reasonably possible. However they may have competing demands such as the need to ameliorate risk, and be both financially and politically acceptable. A people perspective uses knowledge of stakeholders’ abilities, experience, competence and culture to improve the design of systems to ensure they are fit for their intended purpose.
A systems approach which bridges both engineering and healthcare can be defined and applied as a series of questions that integrate people, systems, design and risk perspectives in an ordered and well executed manner. (Engineering Better Care, Royal Academy of Engineering, Academy of Medical Sciences, Royal College of Physicians, 2017). It is only when all four are robustly understood and considered that a systems approach will have the greatest success. Rather than standing alone, this approach complements existing academic frameworks to help solve Public Health problems.
The unique capabilities of the Network to research systems improvement in health and care are:
- unparalleled access to knowledge and data about people through life and medical care;
- access to world-class academic and clinical expertise in Public Health and a wide-range of associated specialities;
- a nationally unique interdisciplinary team of engineers, designers, clinicians, and managers with experience in engineering approaches to systems improvement
- world-leading research into novel technologies and approaches, and their application to health and care challenges; and
- access to the world-leading regional healthcare and technology communities.
“Systems that work do not just happen — they have to be planned, designed and built”
(Creating systems that work: Principles of engineering systems for the 21st century. Royal Academy of Engineering, 2007.)