Skip to main content
Dryad logo

Data from: Systems and complexity thinking in the general practice literature: an integrative, historical narrative review


Sturmberg, Joachim P.; Martin, Carmel M.; Katerndahl, David A. (2014), Data from: Systems and complexity thinking in the general practice literature: an integrative, historical narrative review, Dryad, Dataset,


PURPOSE: Over the past 7 decades, theories in the systems and complexity sciences have had a major influence on academic thinking and research. We assessed the impact of complexity science on general practice/family medicine. METHODS: We performed a historical integrative review using the following systematic search strategy: medical subject heading [humans] combined in turn with the terms complex adaptive systems, nonlinear dynamics, systems biology, and systems theory, limited to general practice/family medicine and published before December 2010. A total of 16,242 articles were retrieved, of which 49 were published in general practice/family medicine journals. Hand searches and snowballing retrieved another 35. After a full-text review, we included 56 articles dealing specifically with systems sciences and general/family practice. RESULTS: General practice/family medicine engaged with the emerging systems and complexity theories in 4 stages. Before 1995, articles tended to explore common phenomenologic general practice/family medicine experiences. Between 1995 and 2000, articles described the complex adaptive nature of this discipline. Those published between 2000 and 2005 focused on describing the system dynamics of medical practice. After 2005, articles increasingly applied the breadth of complex science theories to health care, health care reform, and the future of medicine. CONCLUSIONS: This historical review describes the development of general practice/family medicine in relation to complex adaptive systems theories, and shows how systems sciences more accurately reflect the discipline’s philosophy and identity. Analysis suggests that general practice/family medicine first embraced systems theories through conscious reorganization of its boundaries and scope, before applying empirical tools. Future research should concentrate on applying nonlinear dynamics and empirical modeling to patient care, and to organizing and developing local practices, engaging in community development, and influencing health care reform.

Usage Notes