Systems thinking in public health: a bibliographic contribution to a meta-narrative review.

Research across the formal, natural and social sciences has greatly expanded our knowledge about complex systems in recent decades, informing a broadly inclusive, cross-disciplinary conceptual framework referred to as Systems Thinking (ST). Its use in public health is rapidly increasing, although there remains a poor understanding of how these ideas have been imported, adapted and elaborated by public health research networks worldwide.

This review employed a mixed methods approach to narrate the development of ST in public health. Tabulated results from a literature search of the Web of Science Core Collection database were used to perform a bibliometric analysis and literature review. Annual publication counts and citation scores were used to analyse trends and identify popular and potential ‘landmark’ publications. Citation network and co-authorship network diagrams were analysed to identify groups of articles and researchers in various network roles.

The search string related to 763 publications. Filtering excluded 208 publications while citation tracing identified 2 texts. The final 557 publications were analysed, revealing a near-exponential growth in literature over recent years. Half of all articles were published after 2010 with almost a fifth (17.8%) published in 2014. Bibliographic analysis identified five distinct citation and co-authorship groups homophilous by common geography, research focus, inspiration or institutional affiliation.As a loosely related set of sciences, many public health researchers have developed different aspects of ST based on their underlying perspective. Early studies were inspired by Management-related literature, while later groups adopted a broadly inclusive understanding which incorporated related Systems sciences and approaches.

ST is an increasingly popular subject of discussion within public health although its understanding and approaches remain unclear. Briefly tracing the introduction and development of these ideas and author groups in public health literature may provide clarity and opportunities for further learning, research and development.