SCHEMA Seminar: Systems Thinking as a Tool for Public Health Research and Practice

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  • 2018•06•21     Kuala Lumpur

    UNU-IIGH hosted a “Systems Thinking and Place-Based Methods for Healthier Malaysian Cities” (SCHEMA) seminar as part of a series of academic exchanges under the project. The seminar featured Dr Yi Gong, visiting Research Fellow from the Cardiff University Sustainable Places Research Institute and School of Medicine, and Ms. Esther Sirinasan Chong, an analyst from the Penang Institute.

    Dr. Yi Gong spoke on the connections between systems thinking and place-based methods, beginning with an overview of the socio-ecological determinants of health. Many of these determinants are situated in a particular place, such that the context of place is critical for understanding and improving health, as seen in the UK Foresight obesity report. These determinants are interlinked, and policies and interventions that do not account for these linkages are likely to fail. Systems thinking can be useful for holistically understanding a place and the interactions and feedbacks that shape determinants of health. Multi-sectoral and participatory engagement processes are critical for developing a proper understanding of the system in a particular place.

    Ms. Esther Choong presented work from the Penang institute, showing how systems thinking has influenced research design on food systems in Malaysia. Non-communicable diseases are a complex problem in Malaysia. Of particular concern to the Malaysian Ministry of Health is the sobering rise in national diabetes prevalence: 20% at present, and projected to rise to above 30% by year 2025. She highlighted how existing health promotion efforts and other information-based interventions such as nutrition label policies have limited impact on the population’s eating habits. Research suggests that very few Malaysians read nutrition labels, and are more likely to opt for convenient (accessible) and tasty food choices. A systems thinking analysis suggests that environments that support or hinder healthy food choices are critical. his hypothesis underpins her research proposal, which aims to probe the linkages between food environment (density of fast food outlets and 24-hour eateries) and diabetes prevalence in selected semi-urban areas of Penang and Selangor.

    A key message from the two talks is that many public health problems cannot be solved purely within the health sector. It requires a whole-of-society approach, engaging stakeholders from all sectors of society, including urban planning and transport sectors.