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Conceptual Model Building: Overview. Felicia Hill-Briggs, PhD, ABPP Associate Professor Departments of Medicine and Health, Behavior, and Society, Welch Center for Prevention, Epidemiology, and Clinical Research. Definition of Terms. Conceptual Model (Earp & Ennett, 1991):

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conceptual model building overview

Conceptual Model Building: Overview

Felicia Hill-Briggs, PhD, ABPP

Associate Professor

Departments of Medicine and Health, Behavior, and Society,

Welch Center for Prevention, Epidemiology, and Clinical Research


Definition of Terms

  • Conceptual Model (Earp & Ennett, 1991):
    • A diagram of proposed causal linkages among a set of concepts believed to be related to a particular public health problem


      • Integration of theories from multiple disciplines
      • Presentation of multi-level causality (e.g. individual, group, society, environment; personal, economic, infrastructural, political)
    • Visual representation of the elements of a theory
    • A conceptual framework for organizing and integrating information
    • A conceptual structure successfully developed in one field and applied to some other field to guide research and practice

(Marx MH & Goodson FE. Theories in Contemporary Psychology, 1976)

To organize and synthesize related factors into a coherent, simplified representation

To make alternative routes to an endpoint explicit

To summarize an existing body of literature and/or propose new research directions

Guides formulation of hypotheses for research questions

Helps with planning data collection (confounders, moderators, mediators) and data analyses

Conceptual Model Purposes and Utility


Tips for Building Conceptual Models

  • Remember that models are quite individualized; there is no one “right” representation.
  • Consider that relationships depicted are driven by a combination of theory and evidence.
  • Start with a basic, simple model structure and add additional sets of variables as needed
  • Determine your desired level of variable specificity, based on purpose of your model, clarity regarding relationships among variables, measurement that may be employed.
    • Generally, values for variables should not be included (e.g. age >65, disease duration <10 years).
  • Share your model with colleagues both knowledgeable and unknowledgeable about your content area for feedback.
Accurate Representation of the Science or Theory

What are the relationships among the variables depicted?

Independent, dependent

Antecedant, predictor

Moderators, mediators

Is there an ordering of the variables (e.g. rank, sequence or temporal)

Are there interactions among sets of variables?

Stylistic Elements for Communicating Relationships and Emphasis

Use of different shapes and object sizes; placement

Use of border styles

Use of lines (styles, sizes) to denote connectivity

Use of arrows (styles, sizes) for directionality

Use of emphasized text (bold, underline, case)



Chronic Care Model


Health System

Health Care Organization

Resources and Policies


Self-Management Support







Practice Team






Improved Outcomes

Institute of Medicine


Choosing the Scope of the Model

  • Comprehensive conceptual framework representing a field of study
  • Study-specific conceptual model
    • Focus on one variable or a subset of variables in the comprehensive framework and elaborate beyond the scope of the comprehensive framework
      • Inclusion of specific variables to be measured
    • Adapt comprehensive framework to address selected variables throughout the comprehensive model