Health and well-being are the result of a series of complex processes in which an individual interacts with other people and the environment. A systematic approach ensures incorporation of individual, ecological, social and political factors. However, interactions between these factors can be overlooked within a systematical approach. A systemic approach can provide additional information by incorporating interactions and communication. The opportunities of a systems thinking perspective for health promotion were investigated for this paper. Although others have also made attempts to explore systems thinking in the field of health promotion, the implications of systems thinking in practice need attention. Other fields such as agricultural extension studies, organizational studies and development studies provide useful experiences with the use of a systems thinking perspective in practice. Building on experiences from these fields, we give a theoretical background in which processes of social learning and innovation play an important role. From this background, we derive an overview of important concepts for the practical application of a systems thinking perspective. These concepts are the structure of the system, meanings attached to actions, and power relations between actors. To make these concepts more explicit and reduce the theoretical character of systems thinking, we use an illustration to elaborate on these concepts in practice. For this purpose, we describe a health promotion partnership in The Netherlands using the concepts structure, meaning and power relations. We show how a systems perspective increases insight in the functioning of a partnership and how this can facilitate processes of social learning and innovation. This article concludes by identifying future opportunities and challenges in adopting systems thinking for health promotion practice. A systems perspective towards health promotion can help projects reaching a more integral and sustainable approach in which the complex nature of health promotion processes is supported. Practical applications of systems thinking are necessary to adapt this perspective.
- health promotion
- systems thinking