What is the Biopsychosocial Model?

Donn Saylor

The biopsychosocial model is a method of understanding health and illness through biological, psychological, and social factors. The principle of the biopsychosocial model states that all issues relating to health are products of a complex interplay of these three factors. The model has been both revered and criticized in medical circles. In layman's terms, the biospychosocial model is known as the mind-body connection.

The biopsychosocial model helps to explain the reasons that a head injury can change a person's personality.
The biopsychosocial model helps to explain the reasons that a head injury can change a person's personality.

In 1977, an American psychiatrist named George Engel developed the first biopsychosocial model. Engel aimed to understand all of the aspects that led to the development of specific medical conditions in order to provide a top level of care. In explaining the biopsychosocial model, Engel emphasized the distinct aspects of care: the patient; the patient's social context; and the means in place for dealing with illness, namely doctors and the larger system of health care.

Psychology is one of the factors studied in the biopsychosocial model.
Psychology is one of the factors studied in the biopsychosocial model.

Biological influence plays a key role in the biopsychosocial, or BPS, model. In this aspect of the model, the physiological causes of an illness are identified and studied. The theories behind the BPS model, however, view biological factors as only one part of illness and that no illness manifests itself based solely on physiological grounds. It must work in conjunction with other deciding features.

Psychological influence is another of these chief features. Under this aspect of the model, a healthcare provider will look for underlying psychological issues that contributed to the development of the patient's condition. There are a variety of psychological influences that can contribute to an illness, including depression, negative thought patterns, and a lack of self-control.

The social influence aspect of the BPS model examines the illness from a sociological perspective. Engel deduced that considerations such as economic standing, religion, and even technology can play pivotal roles in the creation of disease. Personal belief systems are also thought to be of significant importance in the development of illness.

The BPS model has been met with both acclaim and criticism. Supports embrace the concept of a mind-body connection, and this idea has surged in popularity and formed the basis for everything from exercise programs to self-help books. Opponents, however, find the BPS model lacking and inherently defective. They cite the model as a way to dis-empower patients and make them feel they have no say over their illness or its treatment. Opponents also assert that the BPS model makes unscientific distinctions between biological and psychological factors.

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Discussion Comments


The biopsychosocial model is quite actively used to disempower patients; just look at how it is used to justify welfare reform in the UK. Allowing people to claim expertise and authority over the psychosocial aspects of people's lives just because they suffer from ill health will always lead to abuses of power.

The notion that people's cognitions and behaviors should be 'managed' in order to promote particular outcomes keeps leaving patients feeling manipulated and mistreated.

In addition to that, many of the claims for the efficacy of biopsychosocial interventions rely on the non-blinded trials and subjective outcomes that have been used to promote quackery like homeopathy. Time to leave it alone.

I disagree with critics who say using a biopsychosocial approach would make a patient feel like they have no say over their own treatment.

With so many factors considered in this type of model, it seems like it would be the most comprehensive approach to treatment and produce the most individualized care possible.

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