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Complex intervention modelling should capture the dynamics of adaptation

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journal contribution
posted on 2023-02-23, 04:35 authored by J Greenwood-Lee, P Hawe, A Nettel-Aguirre, Alan ShiellAlan Shiell, DA Marshall
Background: Complexity has been linked to health interventions in two ways: first as a property of the intervention, and secondly as a property of the system into which the intervention is implemented. The former recognizes that interventions may consist of multiple components that act both independently and interdependently, making it difficult to identify the components or combinations of components (and their contexts) that are important mechanisms of change. The latter recognizes that interventions are implemented in complex adaptive systems comprised of intelligent agents who modify their behaviour (including any actions required to implement the intervention) in an effort to improve outcomes relative to their own perspective and objectives. Although an intervention may be intended to take a particular form, its implementation and impact within the system may deviate from its original intentions as a result of adaptation. Complexity highlights the challenge in developing interventions as effective health solutions. The UK Medical Research Council provides guidelines on the development and evaluation of complex interventions. While mathematical modelling is included in the guidelines, there is potential for mathematical modeling to play a greater role. Discussion: The dynamic non-linear nature of complex adaptive systems makes mathematical modelling crucial. However, the tendency is for models of interventions to limit focus on the ecology of the system - the 'real-time' operation of the system and impacts of the intervention. These models are deficient by not modelling the way the system reacts to the intervention via agent adaptation. Complex intervention modelling needs to capture the consequences of adaptation through the inclusion of an evolutionary dynamic to describe the long-term emergent outcomes that result as agents respond to the ecological changes introduced by intervention in an effort to produce better outcomes for themselves. Mathematical approaches such as those found in economics in evolutionary game theory and mechanism design can inform the design and evaluation of health interventions. As an illustration, the introduction of a central screening clinic is modeled as an example of a health services delivery intervention. Summary: Complexity necessitates a greater role for mathematical models, especially those that capture the dynamics of human actions and interactions.


Alberta Innovates - Health Solutions: Partnership for Research and Innovation in the Health System grant Canadian Institutes for Health Research: Operating Grant (92252).


Publication Date



BMC Medical Research Methodology





Article Number



7p. (p. 1-7)


BioMed Central



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© 2016 Greenwood-Lee et al. Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated.

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