Are network-based interventions a useful antiobesity strategy? An application of simulation models for causal inference in epidemiology.
El-Sayed AM., Seemann L., Scarborough P., Galea S.
Recent research suggests that social networks may present an avenue for intervention against obesity. By using a simulation model in which artificial individuals were nested in a social network, we assessed whether interventions targeting highly networked individuals could help reduce population obesity. We compared the effects of targeting antiobesity interventions at the most connected individuals in a network with those targeting individuals at random. We tested 2 interventions, the first "preventing" obesity among 10% of the population at simulation outset and the second "treating" obesity among 10% of the obese population yearly, each in 2 separate simulations. One simulation featured a literature-based parameter for the network spread of obesity, and the other featured an artificially high parameter. Interventions that targeted highly networked individuals did not outperform at-random interventions in simulations featuring the literature-based parameter. However, in simulations featuring the artificially high parameter, the targeted prevention intervention outperformed the at-random intervention, whereas the treatment intervention implemented at random outperformed the targeted treatment intervention. Results were qualitatively similar across network topologies and intervention scales. Although descriptive studies suggest that social networks influence the spread of obesity, policies targeting well-connected individuals in social networks may not improve obesity reduction. We highlight and discuss the potential applications of counterfactual simulations in epidemiology.