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HL20: Nicholas Christakis—Connecting Human Networks, Human Health

Margaret Dick Tocknell, for HealthLeaders Media, December 13, 2011

In our annual HealthLeaders 20, we profile individuals who are changing healthcare for the better. Some are longtime industry fixtures; others would clearly be considered outsiders. Some are revered; others would not win many popularity contests. All of them are playing a crucial role in making the healthcare industry better. This is the story of Nicholas Christakis.

This profile was published in the December, 2011 issue of HealthLeaders magazine.

 "People are connected, so their health is connected … We need to think about health interventions in a way that's more collective and not as individualistic."

Trained as both a physician and a social scientist, Nicholas Christakis, MD, PhD, MPH, says his intellectual toolkit spans a broad set of concepts and materials. "I live my life at the intersection of different ideas. I try to see if there are ways to bring knowledge from disparate fields to improve public health and public policy."

Christakis is a professor of medicine and medical sociology at Harvard Medical School, and is the scientific founder of Activate Networks, Inc. (formerly Mednetworks.)

For the past decade Christakis, along with his long-time collaborator, James Fowler, PhD, professor of political science and medical genetics at the University of California, San Diego, has been studying human social networks and their effects on health. These aren't Facebook networks. Christakis analyzes the old-fashioned face-to-face networks that people form with friends, families, neighbors, coworkers, and others.

"We look at how human beings connect to one another, how we create these elaborate networks, and what it means for our lives. We're trying to understand, for example, the social determinants of ill health. How is it that social phenomena can be more responsible for how we as a society or as individuals live or die than clinical or biological factors?"

His work in the areas of depression, obesity, and smoking has been published in the New England Journal of Medicine and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Christakis is co-author with Fowler of Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives.

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