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Precision public health – A critical review of the opportunities and obstacles

What do we want to know?

The term ‘precision public health’ (PPH) refers to a new approach in public health which involves the use of novel data sources and/or computer science-driven methods of data analysis to predict risk or outcomes, in order to improve how interventions are targeted or tailored, with the aim of making them more individualised and therefore more effective and cost-effective than methods currently in use. These data may include, for example, information from social media or devices, genomic or clinical data, and information from healthcare services. 

In this critical review, which was conducted between March and October 2019, we outline key assumptions underpinning the PPH approach and identify potential challenges in its application. We adopted a pragmatic, non-systematic review methodology to examine: (i) the general principles underlying PPH; (ii) the validity of claims made about PPH in empirical studies and commentaries; and (iii) the potential opportunities and challenges of adopting a PPH approach through examining two case studies: health checks and community-based interventions. Non-empirical studies (commentaries and think-pieces) were included in this review because PPH represents an emerging approach and many of the ideas around the potential of PPH are only described in such studies

What did we find in the evidence?

Commentary studies emphasise that precision can be achieved in targeting interventions towards narrow social profiles of people through the incorporation of data reflecting micro-level day-to-day insights into the lives of individuals.

Structured analysis of commentary studies shows that (i) the PPH field may be highly influenced by commentary and non-systematic review pieces that lack transparent methods but make claims about the potential of PPH; (ii) commentators on PPH often attempt to provide evidence for claims but the link between the evidence and the claim is often unsubstantiated when critically examined; and (iii) many of the assumptions underlying PPH are not supported by empirical evidence suggesting that there needs to be a measured approach to adopting PPH approaches. Claims around the effectiveness of PPH and around PPH being an advance on current public health approaches tended not to be supported by empirical evidence. 

As a relatively new concept therefore, there is limited direct empirical evidence showing PPH to be effective, and the theoretical arguments in its favour are often not well supported by evidence. The more ambitious claims made for PPH in the literature often rest on questionable readings of the evidence – for example, citing the possibility of identifying subgroups of the population through better targeting as though this automatically promises greater effectiveness among interventions targeting those subgroups.

In practice, it seems that PPH is less a radically new paradigm and more a range of incremental improvements to public health interventions. Hypothetical case studies outlining the potential of a PPH approach applied to health checks and community-based interventions indicate several ways in which new data or tools could be productively used to inform the design and implementation of public health interventions. Current evidence suggests the impact of these is likely to be fairly modest, although further focused research (e.g. exploring the utility of strategies for targeting or involving communities using PPH) may merit further exploration and evaluation.

What are the conclusions?

Defining PPH is contentious and our findings reflect the difficulty in assessing and operationalising the broad ambition of using emerging data and technologies to better understand profiles, predict risk and outcomes, and act upon this evidence. Future work in this area should seek to introduce more focus around the concept of PPH, including being clearer about the goals and breaking down the concept into a series of components that can each be evaluated.

The bulk of the work presented here took place between March and October 2019. There is scope for further analysis to understand the potential of PPH in the future, as the number of studies adopting a PPH approach grows. This larger pool of studies may also lend itself to more systematic approaches to reviewing the evidence, particularly if there is an interest in evaluating a particular component or principle of PPH. In addition, the evidence examined in this report predates the COVID-19 global pandemic, and many of the measures taken to mitigate the spread of the pandemic may provide a further source of evidence and data to understand the potential role of PPH in public health decision-making.


This report should be cited as:

Kneale D, Lorenc T, O’Mara-Eves A, Hong QN, Sutcliffe K, Sowden A, Thomas J (2020) Precision public health – A critical review of the opportunities and obstacles. London: EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, UCL Institute of Education, University College London.

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