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What Is the Biomedical Model?

By H. Williams
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The biomedical model of health, with its focus on biological factors, remains the cornerstone of modern medicine. According to a study published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, this model underpins over 70% of clinical decisions in Western healthcare systems. By prioritizing objective measures such as lab results and genetic markers, this approach often overlooks the intricate web of psychological, environmental, and social determinants that influence well-being. 

While the biomedical model excels in treating acute conditions, it may fall short in addressing chronic diseases, which are influenced by a broader spectrum of factors. As healthcare professionals navigate the complexities of illness and healing, integrating a more holistic perspective could enhance patient outcomes, aligning treatment with the multifaceted nature of human health.

According to this model, good health is the freedom from pain, disease, or defect. It focuses on physical processes that affect health, such as the biochemistry, physiology, and pathology of a condition. It does not account for social or psychological factors that could have a role in the illness. In this model, each illness has one underlying cause, and once that cause is removed, the patient will be healthy again.

The biomedical model is often contrasted with the biopsychosocial model. In 1977, psychiatrist George L. Engel questioned the dominance of the biomedical model, proposing the biopsychosocial model to holistically assess a patient's biological, social, psychological, and behavioral background to determine his or her illness and path of treatment. Although the biomedical model has remained the dominant theory in most places, many fields of medicine including nursing, sociology, and psychology make use of the biopsychosocial model at times. In recent years, some medical professionals have also begun to adopt a biopsychosocial-spiritual model, insisting that spiritual factors must be considered as well.

Proponents of the biopsychosocial model argue that the biomedical model alone does not take into account all of the factors that have an impact on a patient's health. Biological issues, as well as psychological factors such as a patient's mood, intelligence, memory, and perceptions are all considered when making a diagnosis. The biomedical approach may not, for example, take into account the role sociological factors like family, social class, or a patient's environment may have on causing a health condition, and thus offer little insight into how illness may be prevented. A patient who complains of symptoms that have no obvious objective cause might also be dismissed as not being ill, despite the very real affect those symptoms may have on the patient's daily life.

Many scholars in disability studies describe a medical model of disability that is part of the general biomedical approach. In this model, disability is an entirely physical occurrence, and being disabled is a negative that can only be made better if the disability is cured and the person is made "normal." Many disability rights advocates reject this, and promote a social model in which disability is a difference — neither a good nor bad trait. Proponents of the social model see disability as a cultural construct. They point out that a how a person experiences his or her disability can vary based on environmental and societal changes, and that someone who is considered disabled can often be healthy and prosperous without the intervention of a professional or the disability being cured.

Counseling is another field that often uses a more holistic approach to healing. Proponents of this framework note that, in the biomedical model, a patient looks to an expert for a specific diagnosis and treatment. Many counselors often try not to label patients with a specific condition, and instead help them recognize their strengths and build on their positive traits. The relationship is far more collaborative than in the biomedical model where a health care professional instructs a patient to follow medical orders so he or she can be cured.

Disease vs. Disorder vs. Syndrome: What Is the Difference?

When you go to the hospital, you may hear the doctors describing your symptoms and diagnosis using the terms disease, disorder, and syndrome. Although these terms seem interchangeable, they have different meanings in medical practice.

Disease

The disease is the highest level of understanding of an illness. It includes identifying the specific causative agent that elucidates symptoms to a level of certainty. Unlike a disorder, a healthcare provider can see, touch and measure.

For arrhythmia, the disease is cardiovascular disease (CVD) since doctors can clearly define the reasons behind it.

Disorder

A disorder is similar to a syndrome as it refers to symptoms that appear together and co-vary in time. But, these symptoms may also relate. Usually, there is not enough clinical evidence for an entire diagnosis as doctors are limited in ascertaining the altered state of health.

Disorders affect the regular functioning of the body or part of the body. Each group depends on how they affect the human body. They can be mental, physical, genetic, or structural. An example of a disorder affecting the heart is arrhythmia. It is a condition where the heart beats in irregular patterns.

Syndrome

The observed deviations can only be symptoms when your body is not functioning optimally. When symptoms occur together, they describe a syndrome. Here, there is no direct identification of what might be causing the symptoms.

For example, Acquired ImmunoDeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is the last stage of HIV infections where the body’s immune system is completely damaged. Here, the patient suffers from opportunistic infections whose symptoms come up due to impaired immunity.

How Sociological Factors Influence Your Health

Sociological factors include all personal circumstances that impact your health and well-being. In addition, they have cultural, economic, and political factors that influence your access to health services. The sociological factors include:

  1. Income and status: Your income level and social class influence your health. People with a higher income and social status have better health than those with a lower income level. Similarly, the divergence between the income classes and societal position is proportional to the deviation in access to healthcare.
  2. Education level: Your level of education will have a significant impact on your health. People with a lower education level have poor general health. In addition, lower education levels result in poor language and illiteracy, flawed decision-making, lower self-esteem, and chronic health conditions.
  3. Housing conditions: Where you live plays a significant part in your health status. You are at a higher risk of developing health problems in poor living conditions. It extends to your neighborhood and relates to civil participation, discrimination, and access to government resources.
  4. Food security: The type and amount of food you access will contribute to your overall health. Food insecurity is associated with health conditions, particularly in children.

How Spirituality Influences Medical Diagnosis

The biopsychosocial–spiritual model explores the interrelation between your spirituality and health. This approach recognizes that your body and mind have connections to the environment, which influence your health. It is beneficial when doctors deal with end-of-life circumstances such as termination of pregnancy and suspension of treatment for terminal illnesses.

Researchers identify spirituality and religion as closely related and go a long way in influencing the life essence of patients. These positive implications are strength and hopefulness against disease suffering, making it more bearable for patients. Similarly, negative expressions of spirituality such as sorrow and guilt tend to slow down medical recovery and result in conditions such as stress.

How Does Technology Influence the Biomedical Model?

The biomedical model and technology are mutually enforcing in maintaining the same objectivity in disease diagnosis. However, technology can run on the basic principles of the biomedical model more effectively as it is solely based on data collected from a patient. As a result, technology is revolutionizing the medical industry in diagnosis, surgery, research, and development.

For example, computer technology allows doctors to conceptualize and categorize mental disorders, which doctors can use to make decisions on diagnosis and treatment. The use of technology in neuroscience and human genomics is even challenging the applicability of the biopsychosocial approach in medical practice.

However, caution is warranted in embracing technology in the medical industry. There is limited education, training, and policy regarding the ethics of information derived from technology and the service to patients. Also, the integration is still in its early stages; therefore, the medical field must wait before making conclusions on the biomedical–technology integration.

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Discussion Comments
By anon996407 — On Aug 24, 2016

Can be useful with risk assessment (care plan).

By anon993400 — On Nov 12, 2015

The biomedical model focuses on diagnosing, treating and curing an illness, then sending the person away healthy. The social model focuses on why someone is becoming ill. Like, if someone is coming to the doctor with a cough and you find out they are a smoker, the most effective way to cure the cough is to help the person stop smoking, rather than just giving them a cough medicine. The social model is holistic (looks at the whole person, including environment they live in, lifestyle etc) and the biomedical model is not.

By anon956330 — On Jun 13, 2014

The bio medical model may not adequately account for the health conditions in Africa. Discuss this statement, citing examples.

By anon339928 — On Jun 28, 2013

The biomedical model is not used to the exclusion of others. This artificial distinction isn't really present in treatment. However, it is prioritised; that is, a doctor will generally look for physical illness first when a condition may be physical or psychological.

The idea that there are two models in conflict is one that you'll only find in social studies. In practice, doctors use the biomedical approach unless illness appears to be psychological, at which point they'll switch to a biopsychosocial model or whatever you want to call it. However, the problem is that they're trained for biomedical treatment and the core assumptions are different; this is one of the reasons why psychological illness is stigmatised (invisibility, links to personal factors, ill-defined causes etcetera are sure signs that an illness isn't real in the biomedical model - information on the sick role will show this).

By anon335274 — On May 19, 2013

I am confused about the differences between the bio medical model of health and the socio medical model. Can someone please elaborate?

By anon307832 — On Dec 07, 2012

It's quite difficult to understand and takes a lot of reading to clearly state the effectiveness of them both, but when you understand it, it's not that hard.

By anon287086 — On Aug 23, 2012

I'm a social work student and have an assignment on the Biomedical model about its history and founder and I just can't figure anything out. Please help.

By anon179240 — On May 23, 2011

the difference in the two is that the biomedical model disregards any psychological or environmental factors that can cause illness. the biopsychosocial model looks at social factors. if used together they compliment each other so you have a holistic approach to care where if you just use one or the other you don't often find the root cause of a problem. in our society the NHS is underpinned by the biomedical model, as they will look at viewable symptoms and your genetics before they consider any social factors.

By chrisinbama — On Mar 22, 2011

@calabama71- One of the ways in which I learned about the biopsychosocial model is pretty easy; everything affects everything else. To break that down, a person’s medical condition can be affected by other things in their life such as their emotional status, family issues, and other things.

To look at a patient’s medical condition without looking at their social or psychological issues could lead to a misdiagnosis. All components must be considered, hence the biopsychosocial model.

By calabama71 — On Mar 19, 2011

I am currently a social work student. We have been studying the biomedical model and will start on the biopsychosocial model next week. I am a little bit confused on the difference in the two. I mean, I understand what they are but not exactly what they are used for. Anyone have any input?

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