Models for the study of whole systems

Iris R. Bell, Mary Koithan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

78 Scopus citations


This article summarizes a network and complex systems science model for research on whole systems of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) such as homeopathy and traditional Chinese medicine. The holistic concepts of networks and nonlinear dynamical complex systems are well matched to the global and interactive perspectives of whole systems of CAM, whereas the reductionistic science model is well matched to the isolated local organ, cell, and molecular mechanistic perspectives of pharmaceutically based biomedicine. Whole systems of CAM are not drugs with specific actions. The diagnostic and therapeutic approaches of whole systems of CAM produce effects that involve global and patterned shifts across multiple subsystems of the person as a whole. For homeopathy, several characteristics of complex systems, including the probabilistic nature of attractor patterns, variable sensitivity of complex systems to initial conditions, and emergent behaviors in the evolution of a system in its full environmental context over time, could help account for the mixed basic science and controlled clinical trial research findings, in contrast with the consistently positive outcomes of observational studies in the literature. Application of theories and methods from complex systems and network science can open a new era of advances in understanding factors that lead to good versus poor individual global outcome patterns and to rational triage of patients to one type of care over another. The growing reliance on complex systems thinking and systems biology for cancer research affords a unique opportunity to bridge between the CAM and conventional medical worlds with some common language and conceptual models.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)293-307
Number of pages15
JournalIntegrative Cancer Therapies
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2006


  • Chaos theory
  • Complementary and alternative medicine
  • Complex systems
  • Global and local patterns
  • Homeopathy
  • Network science
  • Systems biology
  • Whole systems research

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oncology
  • Complementary and alternative medicine


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