The Value of Networks


Each of us engages in networking every day. When we’re in search of a piece of information or an answer to a question, we seek out the person we think is most likely to have it.

There is actually a science to networking, and it’s possible to study how networks work and how to improve them.

By knowing the specific knowledge or experience held by each person in a network, it’s possible to make decisions based on the best information available.

State coalitions for tobacco control

Networks — sometimes called coalitions — have been at the foundation of fostering change in public health policies. In tobacco control, one of the largest (and at the time, controversial) community-based initiatives was the American Stop Smoking Intervention Study (ASSIST), which was supported by the National Cancer Institute and American Cancer Society (1, 2).

ASSIST was based on the premise that state tobacco control policies could be significantly advanced if state coalitions not only expanded, but also developed better linkages and fostered information sharing. This way, knowledge gained by one coalition could be leveraged by all the others, leading to more cohesive, focused efforts.

The Global Bridges network

In a similar fashion, Global Bridges today is creating and expanding networks of health care providers dedicated to improving tobacco dependence treatment. Our goal is to train as many clinicians as possible to provide tobacco dependence treatment, while also supporting a global environment where trained providers will both train others and serve as knowledge “hubs” within their communities, regions and countries.

Not only will the Global Bridges network result in more people being effectively assessed and treated worldwide for tobacco use, but it will also ensure that new, innovative ideas spread quickly to providers around the globe.

Looking ahead

Going forward, the science of networks and systems will become increasingly important within the public health community, in part because knowledge is being acquired much more quickly than it can be effectively synthesized and implemented into practice (3, 4, 5).

Further reading about the role of networks in health care includes work by Thomas Valente, who has been a leader in exploring the role of social networks — as well as networks of key opinion leaders — on the diffusion of innovations that have the potential to impact decision-making regarding health practices.

Other recent research has focused not only on the role of network structure and function in tobacco control (3, 4, 6, 7), but also in obesity (8) and HIV/AIDS (9).

  1. National Cancer Institute. Evaluating ASSIST: A blueprint for understanding state-level tobacco control. Tobacco Control Monograph No. 17. Bethesda, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute. NIH Pub. No. 06-6058, October 2006.
  2. National Cancer Institute. ASSIST: Shaping the future of tobacco prevention and control. Tobacco Control Monograph No. 16. Bethesda, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute. NIH Pub. No. 05-5645, May 2005.
  3. Leischow SJ, et al. Systems thinking to improve the public’s health. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2008;35:S196.
  4. Leischow SJ, et al. Mapping U.S. government tobacco control leadership: Networked for success? Nicotine & Tobacco Research. 2010;12:888.
  5. de Savigny D, Adam T. (Eds). Systems thinking for health systems strengthening. Alliance for Health Policy and Systems Research, World Health Organization, 2009.
  6. Christakis NA, Fowler JH. The collective dynamics of smoking in a large social network. New England Journal of Medicine. 2008;358:2249.
  7. Luke, DA, Harris JK. Social network analysis in public health: History, methods, and applications. Public Health Reports. 2007;28:69.
  8. Christakis NA, Fowler JH. The spread of obesity in a large social network over 32 years. New England Journal of Medicine. 2007;357:370.
  9. Kohler HP, et al. Social networks and HIV/AIDS risk perceptions. Demography. 2007;44:1.