WashU affiliated authors: Douglas A. Luke (Center for Public Health Systems Science)
Background: Two of the most important causes of global disease fall in the realm of environmental health: household air pollution (HAP) and poor water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) conditions. Interventions, such as clean cookstoves, household water treatment, and improved sanitation facilities, have great potential to yield reductions in disease burden. However, in recent trials and implementation efforts, interventions to improve HAP and WASH conditions have shown few of the desired health gains, raising fundamental questions about current approaches.
Objectives: We describe how the failure to consider the complex systems that characterize diverse real-world conditions may doom promising new approaches prematurely. We provide examples of the application of systems approaches, including system dynamics, network analysis, and agent-based modeling, to the global environmental health priorities of HAP and WASH research and programs. Finally, we offer suggestions on how to approach systems science.
Methods: Systems science applied to environmental health can address major challenges by a) enhancing understanding of existing system structures and behaviors that accelerate or impede aims; b) developing understanding and agreement on a problem among stakeholders; and c) guiding intervention and policy formulation. When employed in participatory processes that engage study populations, policy makers, and implementers, systems science helps ensure that research is responsive to local priorities and reflect real-world conditions. Systems approaches also help interpret unexpected outcomes by revealing emergent properties of the system due to interactions among variables, yielding complex behaviors and sometimes counterintuitive results.
Discussion: Systems science offers powerful and underused tools to accelerate our ability to identify barriers and facilitators to success in environmental health interventions. This approach is especially useful in the context of implementation research because it explicitly accounts for the interaction of processes occurring at multiple scales, across social and environmental dimensions, with a particular emphasis on linkages and feedback among these processes.
Citation: Joshua Rosenthal, Raphael E. Arku, Jill Baumgartner, Joe Brown, Thomas Clasen, Joseph N.S. Eisenberg, Peter Hovmand ,Pamela Jagger, Douglas A. Luke, Ashlinn Quinn, and Gautam N. Yadama 2020. Systems Science Approaches for Global Environmental Health Research: Enhancing Intervention Design and Implementation for Household Air Pollution (HAP) and Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) Programs. Environmental Health Perspectives 128:10 CID: 105001 https://doi.org/10.1289/EHP7010.