Discuss the two models of health and illness:

The bio-medical model sometimes known as the medical model, is the basis of western medicine and is concerned with the treatment of and cures for illnesses and disease. It is based on scientific principles through research and evidence and is given a high status in society.

There are a number of underlying assumptions to the model for example:

  • Ill health is either caused by an accident such as falling over and breaking a leg or by a germ or a virus or a faulty gene. For example short sightedness runs in families, that is it is often carried on a faulty gene, tonsillitis is usually caused by a virus, MRSA is a bacteriological infection.
  • Illnesses can be identified and can be classified into illnesses concerned with different aspects of the body for example those concerned with the digestive system.
  • Doctors are trained to identify and treat illnesses.
  • It is possible to make an objective diagnosis of an illness and then to treat and cure it.

The bio-medical model influenced the principles on which the NHS was set up in 1948. The model forms the basis of the training of most doctors and nurses.

Image: Bio-Medical, LWA / getty images

The social model covers a range of approaches to health and illness. These approaches argue that health and illness are relative concepts and vary from place to place and time to time, they are social constructs. The social model takes account of the environment in which people live and their living standards, for example damp housing which could cause diseases of the respiratory system, the diet that people eat – the extent to which they eat fresh fruit and vegetables or an excess of processed food. The work environment and pollution for example the levels of pollution in inner cities is sometimes higher than in cities such as Beijing.

London air pollution
  • 9,400 Premature deaths a year in London linked to air pollution
  • 500,000 aged under 19 who live in areas that breach EU limits
  • 443 schools that have unsafe pollution levels
  • 86 of these are secondary
  • 2025 year London is expected to meet EU limits

Image: Social - Pollution, Flickr Creative Commons

Evaluate each Bio-medical assumption and support findings by a sociologist and/or an example.

Bio-medical model Evaluation Answer

For further reading go to the work of Blaxter (1983), Chrisnam (1977), Calnam (1983) and Foucault (1973. See also theories referred to in unit five.


Complete the paragraph below by dragging the appropriate word into the correct space.

There are two models of health and illness. The first known as the bio-medical model takes a scientific approach to health and illness. The second covers a range of ideas about health and illness and is known as the social model. The ideas espoused by this model are critical of the bio-medical approach. The bio-medical model is also known as the medical model. Western Medicine was based on the principles of the biomedical model and this is the basis of the NHS. Those who take this approach argue diseases can be treated and cured. The training that the medical profession undergo is based on this approach. It is seen to be objective. The body is treated like a machine.
Ivan Illich argues modern medicine may sometimes harm people by causing more ill health for example people who go to hospital for an operation may contract other infections or a worsening of the medical condition being treated. This is known as medical iatrogenesis. An example of this was the use of Thalidomide in pregnant women. The MRSA infection is another example of an infection that people might contract whilst in hospital. Those who espouse the bio-medical approach argue that illness and disease are caused by bacteria, viruses or a faulty gene. On the other hand the critics of this approach argue the cause of illness and disease is often social and environmental conditions such as poverty.