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What is a Biopsychosocial Approach?

By Jacob Queen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The biopsychosocial approach is a way of looking at the treatment of patients. Doctors who apply this view of medicine see the patient's psychological condition and social situation as integral parts of the individual's overall health. A man named George Engel developed the biopsychosocial theory of medicine during the 1970s, and he generally saw it as an alternative to the dominant biomedical approach, which was entirely focused on physical aspects of illness. Initially, his idea didn’t win that much support, but over time, some of his theories have gained more respect. The biopsychosocial approach isn’t generally considered the norm, but many of the ideas have made an impact on medicine.

Studies over the years have shown some real physiological consequences when it comes to a person’s mental state. A fairly well-known example of this is the idea of a placebo effect. Patients can be told that they are taking a medicine when they actually aren’t, and they might experience some level of relief just because they believe the medicine is real. Other studies have shown that happy patients heal more rapidly and have a better chance at recovery than those who are depressed. These bits of data generally support the idea behind the biopsychosocial approach.

Another concept that favors a broader approach to treating patients is the idea that behaviors are often directly related to illnesses. For example, people often become sick because of their inability to control themselves when eating or using harmful substances. This could be seen as a psychological issue with direct physical consequences. Doctors who follow the biopsychosocial approach tend to view every aspect of the patient as an important key to overall health, and they often look for psychological tendencies that might make a person more likely to be sick.

When people do become ill, sometimes a biopsychosocial approach can help them tolerate their illness better. Even if treating the patient’s psychological or social life doesn’t have a direct physical consequence, it can still play a role in that patient's overall life experience and, therefore, affect the patient’s perception of health. For example, if a patient is depressed about his sickness and generally in a bad mood overall, his physical symptoms might improve without really changing his overall negative outlook. A doctor using a biopsychosocial approach would probably take that into account and may help the patient by providing a counselor or antidepressant medication.

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Discussion Comments
By Mammmood — On Dec 16, 2011

@everetra - Diet and lifestyle play a big role in my opinion. I think nobody will dispute that. The medical profession links diet and lifestyle as risk factors for certain kinds of disease, like heart disease, diabetes and so forth.

What is still debatable is if you can reverse disease by changing your diet. For example, we know that carcinogens in meat could lead to cancer. But if you switch to a vegetarian diet after getting cancer, can you reverse the disease?

I don’t think doctors are willing to go that far just yet. I personally believe that you can because I’ve heard of it being done. The evidence thus far has been anecdotal, I will admit.

By everetra — On Dec 16, 2011

@SkyWhisperer - I don’t know how far I am willing to take the psychosocial model. But I will say this. I am not in favor of doctors using antidepressants to treat patients who have a gloomy outlook on life. What good is that?

If the whole idea is to use a bio psycho social approach to supplement their existing medication for their illness, why would you give them more drugs for their mental state of mind?

I think if you are going to go down this route, keep it natural. Patients should find some ways to change the way they think and improve their outlook on life – prayer, yoga, funny movies, whatever. But to simply give them more medicine is to add one problem to another in my opinion.

By SkyWhisperer — On Dec 15, 2011

@nony - I totally agree. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Patch Adams” with Robin Williams, you’ve seen a great illustration of that. The doctor uses outrageous humor to treat a group of ill children.

He was certainly controversial but from what I understand the movie was based on a true story, with some artistic license of course.

Conventional medicine has simply discovered what the so-called “alternative medicine” practitioners using the biopsychosocial model of health have known for years - that there is a definite link between body and mind like you said. Even the Bible says, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.”

By nony — On Dec 14, 2011

Frankly, I don’t think that there is anything here about the biopsychosocial model that should come as any big surprise. Basically it’s a holistic view of medicine, one to which I subscribe personally.

Despite the fact that it hasn’t become popular until recently it’s been around for thousands of years. The premise is simple: there is a direct relationship between your mind and your body.

I personally believe that most illness has deeper psychological elements, like fear, stress and worry. Not all diseases fit in this category but I believe that most do.

As a matter of fact, I’ve heard that scientists have discovered that things like laughter and prayer can boost the immune system, so that the body recovers more easily than it would if the patient relied on the medication alone.

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