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What is Disease Mongering?

By Tara Barnett
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Disease mongering is a type of aggressive advertising that works to convince people without medical expertise of the existence of certain diseases. Typically, this type of behavior is applied to conditions that are not life threatening and only problematic from a certain perspective. Advertisements for cures for baldness, for example, might be considered an example of disease mongering. Usually, this term is reserved for more serious attempts to profit from pharmaceuticals and medical treatments and might be applied to unnecessary diagnosis of mental health problems.

The strategies used in disease mongering in order to make money involve first establishing that a disease exists by medicalizing a certain set of behaviors or symptoms. A group of behavioral problems in children, for example, might become a newly discovered disorder. Disease mongering can also group together physical symptoms in order to create a disorder, but this is often more difficult to accomplish. Usually, intangible symptoms are easier to treat because they are highly subjective.

Usually, the next step is to devise a way of treating that disorder. Often, the treatment for a problem will involve large medical bills and medications. Sometimes, particularly in the case of psychiatric disorders, those medications can be dangerous or ineffective. Often they simply work by making the user happier, calmer, or otherwise different from her previous state.

Once both a disease and its treatment exist, it is important to popularize the disorder. A disease can become popular either because it has prestige or because people are afraid. As soon as the disease is recognized as legitimate by the news and among people without medical degrees, it effectively advertises itself. Using this model, a pharmaceutical company that produces a cure for a harmless disease can make a very large profit.

People often accuse professionals involved in psychiatry of disease mongering because mental disorders are defined in relation to a nonexistent normal human mind. Often, people who are opposed to medical practices for reasons that are religious or philosophical make accusations of disease mongering directed at most medical professionals. From some perspectives, medications for postpartum depression are considered products of disease mongering.

Whether a practice should be defined under this pejorative term is largely a matter of perspective. From the perspective of the pharmaceutical company or other organization, the company is providing information directly to the public, allowing for more control over individual health. On the other hand, from the perspective of those accusing the organization of disease mongering, the pharmaceutical companies are actually dispersing misinformation that may potentially harm the public. In general, a good way to avoid being hurt by this practice is to consider the claims made by both sides and then make a decision informed by facts rather than rhetoric.

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