George Kaplan, PhD

portrait of george kaplan

Home Institution: University of Michigan

Field: Social Epidemiology

Current Positions: University of Michigan

My Driving Question

What programs and policies will make the greatest positive impact on the health of communities and reduce inequalities?

Scholar Project 

Complex Systems, Population Health and Health Disparities 

Dr. Kaplan studies why some communities are healthy and others are not. Building bridges between two fields—public health and complex systems science—he’s exploring how computer simulations may be used to uncover insight about the factors that shape population health. That insight, in turn, can help inform social policies and programs.

Dr. Kaplan’s decades-long work has been to develop an expanded view of factors that contribute to population health and health disparities – not only physiological, medical, and behavioral factors, but also socioeconomic, educational, cognitive, emotional/psychosocial, neighborhood-based, work-related, legal, etc.

Over time, he realized something crucial was missing, namely how the “whole” is generated from the “parts.” Focus on the atomistic has led ironically to massive accumulation of facts, with no idea how they fit together. Dr. Kaplan experienced a major “ah ha” moment in discovering the world of complex systems simulation as used in the fields of engineering, physical sciences, and computer sciences.

With support from TIIH and the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Kaplan is exploring the potential for computer simulations to provide meaningful, useful integration of a wide range of factors that contribute to population health. His exploration so far has led to the development of a unique, JAVA-based computer model that attempts to generate an artificial world that operates based on what we know about the dynamic relationships among the multiple determinants of health.

Dr. Kaplan finds that a strength of this model is that it allows us to represent a multi-level, dynamic etiologic theory, while also providing the opportunity via computer simulation to pose a series of counter-factuals–“what-if” queries that are of great interest from a policy point of view. This is of particular importance when we want to capture the “big picture” where many forces are shaping health, with lots of interactions between them, and where it would never be feasible to conduct comprehensive trials or experiments that represent the confluence of these forces.

In some recent work, the model was used to simulate the determinants of racial disparities in obesity, and the role of three neighborhood policies (increasing availability of good food stores, increasing physical activity infrastructure and walkability, and increasing school quality) on the reduction of black/white disparities in Body Mass Index (BMI). The simulation model, which is grounded in the best evidence, allowed him to simulate 125 different combinations of these policies and to observe their differential impact on disparities in obesity across generations. Each of these policies had some impact on BMI and BMI disparities, but it was the combination of them that was most effective. With some combinations of these policies it was possible to demonstrate 90 percent reductions in BMI disparities between black and whites.

While much more work needs to be done in the development and validation of this simulation model, this example shows how the use of such an empirically-informed computer simulation model, which embraces complexity rather than eschewing it, allows us to deal with the complex pathways that link neighborhood policies to health related factors and disparities in those factors, and illustrates the use of a new set of tools in understanding integrative health.


Professor George A. Kaplan, PhD, is a social epidemiologist whose work on the role of behavioral, social, psychological and socioeconomic factors in health and health inequalities has been cited more than 63,000 times. A major theme in his work is the complex linkage between “upstream” and “downstream” factors in maintaining health, delaying disease and improving function, with an emphasis on the social determinants of health.

Studies by Dr. Kaplan and colleagues have detailed the cumulative cost of socioeconomic disadvantage on health and functional outcomes in the elderly, the role of socioeconomic status and economic equity on the overall health of populations, the impact of neighborhood and community factors on health, the impact of life-course trajectories on a variety of health outcomes in adulthood, and the role of economic and social policies on health.

Dr. Kaplan is the Thomas Francis Collegiate Emeritus Professor of Public Health in the School of Public Health, a research professor at the Institute for Social Research, and director of the Center for Social Epidemiology and Population Health, all at the University of Michigan. He is a faculty member in the Center for the Study of Complex Systems at the University of Michigan. He was an Associate in the Population Health Program of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research until its end. Dr. Kaplan was also the founding Director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society Scholars Program at the University of Michigan.

Among his honors are membership in the Institute of Medicine, the National Academy of Social Insurance, the Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research, and election to the Presidency of the Society for Epidemiologic Research. Dr. Kaplan is the first public health scientist to be invited to address the Nobel Forum at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden.

In addition to being an internationally respected social epidemiologist, Dr. Kaplan is an accomplished fine art photographer. See his images.

Education and Training
  • Postdoctorate, epidemiology, University of California, Berkeley
  • Postdoctorate, health psychology, University of California, San Francisco
  • PhD, psychology, Cornell University
  • BA, psychology, Johns Hopkins University
Selected Honors
  • Chair, Network on Inequality, Complexity and  Health 
  • Institute of Medicine (elected 2001)
  • First public health researcher to deliver a Nobel Forum Lecture (2000)
  • President, Society for Epidemiologic
    Research (2003-4)
  • National Academy of Social Insurance
    (elected 2003)
  • Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research (elected 1998)
  • MERIT Award, National Institute on Aging (1996-2006)
  • University of Michigan Society of Fellows (1999-2003)
  • Invited Plenary Speaker, Global Forum for Health Research (2003)
  • Fellow in Residence, Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center (2005)
  • John P. McGovern Award, University of Texas, School of Public Health at Houston (2006)
  • Invited Plenary Speaker, 11th World Congress on Public Health (2006)
  • Patricia Barchas Award-American Psychosomatic Society (2009)
  • The Abraham Lilienfeld Award, American Public Health Association (2012)
  • ISI Highly Cited Researcher
Selected Publications