Illness, Disease & The Biomedical Model

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  • 0:02 Mental Disorders
  • 0:39 Illness vs. Disease
  • 2:52 The Biomedical Model
  • 4:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov
In this lesson, you're going to learn about the nuanced but important difference between an illness and a disease and how that's important with respect to the biomedical model illness.

Mental Disorders

What if I told you that someone's depression wasn't a real concern? If their anxiety was nothing to worry about? If their ADHD was just a made-up disease? If any pure mental disorder, for that matter, is just a weak-man's excuse for life's difficulties?

In today's world, you'd tell me I am crazy, no pun intended. But you see, for well over a hundred years, medical practitioners in the West often-times thought exactly this or simply dismissed mental health disorders as being nothing other than a secondary concern among their patients. Why? Well, it's partly the result of something known as the biomedical model.

Illness vs. Disease

Before you can truly understand the biomedical model, you must understand the difference between an illness and a disease. Aren't they the same, you might ask? Well, that nuanced point and its answer has been debated since at least the 1960s in medical literature. But let me boil down 50 years of boring but important medical debate to this for you.

Disease is a word that refers to a pathological process in or of the body. In other words, it refers to some sort of physical and/or physiological abnormality in the structure and/or function of a body part, system, or the body as a whole. If you were to explain this to your little kid brother, you'd tell him that disease is when a body part is sick.

And, while very often illness is used synonymously with disease, the more nuanced and apropos definition of illness is more like what the patient feels when they are unwell, the meaning they ascribe to the experience of being unwell, and what those around him perceive as a result of all of this. Illness is thus a term for subjective aspects that may not be provable through any physical, chemical, or biological diagnostic means like x-rays, chemical lab tests, or biopsies, respectively. Illness includes a person's emotions, environmental influences, cultural backgrounds that influence their perspectives on health, and far more.

Basically, if you were to explain illness to your little kid sister, you'd tell her that illness is when a person is sick, and a person is far more than a collection of body parts.

A person may have a diseased organ but feel absolutely nothing. Therefore his organ is sick but he is not ill. A person may feel depressed when there is no detectable physical or physiological abnormality. In this case, the person is ill but is not, as far as we can tell in this case, diseased.

Disease certainly can and often does cause illness, but as you just learned, it doesn't have to, and illness can exist without disease.

Biomedical Model

So what is the biomedical model, then? It's a model of illness partly derived from Louis Pasteur's germ theory of disease that uses only biological factors in order to try and understand a person's illness. What that means by extension then, is that things like psychological and social factors are excluded as a result.

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