A complex systems science perspective for whole systems of complementary and alternative medicine research

Mary Koithan, Iris R. Bell, Kathryn Niemeyer, David Pincus

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

48 Scopus citations


Whole systems complementary and alternative medicine (WS-CAM) approaches share a basic worldview that embraces interconnectedness; emergent, non-linear outcomes to treatment that include both local and global changes in the human condition; a contextual view of human beings that are inseparable from and responsive to their environments; and interventions that are complex, synergistic, and interdependent. These fundamental beliefs and principles run counter to the assumptions of reductionism and conventional biomedical research methods that presuppose unidimensional simple causes and thus dismantle and individually test various interventions that comprise only single aspects of the WSCAM system. This paper will demonstrate the superior fit and practical advantages of using complex adaptive systems (CAS) and related modeling approaches to develop the scientific basis for WS-CAM. Furthermore, the details of these CAS models will be used to provide working hypotheses to explain clinical phenomena such as (a) persistence of changes for weeks to months between treatments and/or after cessation of treatment, (b) nonlocal and whole systems changes resulting from therapy, (c) Hering's law, and (d) healing crises. Finally, complex systems science will be used to offer an alternative perspective on cause, beyond the simple reductionism of mainstream mechanistic ontology and more parsimonious than the historical vitalism of WS-CAM. Rather, complex systems science provides a scientifically rigorous, yet essentially holistic ontological perspective with which to conceptualize and empirically explore the development of disease and illness experiences, as well as experiences of healing and wellness.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)7-14
Number of pages8
JournalForschende Komplementarmedizin
Issue numberSUPPL. 1
StatePublished - Jan 2012


  • CAM metatheory
  • Complementary and alternative medicine
  • Complex adaptive systems
  • Complex systems science
  • Dynamic systems
  • Worldview

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Complementary and alternative medicine


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