What is the Biomedical Model?

H. Williams

The biomedical model of illness and healing focuses on purely biological factors, and excludes psychological, environmental, and social influences. This is considered to be the dominant, modern way for health care professionals to diagnose and treat a condition in most Western countries. Most health care professionals do not first ask for a psychological or social history of a patient; instead, they tend to analyze and look for biophysical or genetic malfunctions. The focus is on objective laboratory tests rather than the subjective feelings or history of the patient.

The biomedical model focuses on objective laboratory tests as opposed to subjective feelings of the patient.
The biomedical model focuses on objective laboratory tests as opposed to subjective feelings of the patient.

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 equates good health with freedom from pain, disease, or defect.
The biomedical model equates good health with freedom from pain, disease, or defect.

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.

The biomedical model is the primary manner in which health care professionals diagnose and treat disease in Western countries.
The biomedical model is the primary manner in which health care professionals diagnose and treat disease in Western countries.

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Discussion Comments


Can be useful with risk assessment (care plan).


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.


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


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).


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


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.


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.


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.


@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.


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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