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The compatibility of reductionistic and complexity approaches in a sociomedical innovation perspective
  1. Jenneken Naaldenberg1,
  2. Noelle Aarts2
  1. 1Primary and Community care, Radboud university medical center, Radboud Institute for Health Sciences, Nijmegen, Gelderland, Netherlands
  2. 2Institute for Science in Society, Radboud University Nijmegen, Nijmegen, Gelderland, Netherlands
  1. Correspondence to Dr Jenneken Naaldenberg; jenneken.naaldenberg{at}


Medical technologies, e-health and personalised medicine are rapidly changing the healthcare landscape. Successful implementation depends on interactions between the technology, the actors and the context. More traditional reductionistic approaches aim to understand isolated factors and linear cause–effect relations and have difficulties in addressing inter-relatedness and interaction. Complexity theory offers a myriad of approaches that focus specifically on behaviour and mechanisms that emerge from interactions between involved actors and the environment. These approaches work from the assumption that change does not take place in isolation and that interaction and inter-relatedness are central concepts to study. However, developments are proceeding fast and along different lines. This can easily lead to confusion about differences and usefulness in clinical and healthcare research and practice. Next to this, reductionistic and complexity approaches have their own merits and much is to be gained from using both approaches complementary. To this end, we propose three lines in complexity research related to health innovation and discuss ways in which complexity approaches and reductionistic approaches can act compatibly and thereby strengthen research designs for developing, implementing and evaluating health innovations.

  • health policy
  • health services research
  • health systems
  • public health

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  • Handling editor Seye Abimbola

  • Twitter @jnaaldenberg

  • Contributors JN is a health scientist and senior researcher in health for people with intellectual disabilities. NA is a professor of socioecological interactions and studies inter-human processes and communication for creating space for sustainable change. This article originates from discussions between JN and NA exploring how socioecological interactions could also apply to the health and medical innovation system. JN drafted the first version of this paper based on literature from health and medical research, socioecological research and innovation studies. JN acts as the guarantor. NA added conceptual insights and commented and amended drafts of the paper. Both authors approved the final manuscript.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient and public involvement Patients and/or the public were not involved in the design, or conduct, or reporting, or dissemination plans of this research.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data availability statement There are no data in this work.