The Biopsychosocial Model In Modern Medical Practice

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The Biopsychosocial Model approach to health and illness introduced by Engel, G (1977) tells us that our behavior, thinking,, and emotions can influence our physical well-being. He disputed the age-old belief that only the biological factors of health and disease are worthy of study and practice. He argued that psychological and social factors influence biological functioning and play a role in health and illness also.

The Biological component of this theory examines how aspects of biology influence health (e.g exposure to germs, functioning of major body organs, genetics, etc.) The psychological component tries to find a psychological cause for a particular mental problem(e.g stress, eating disorder, insomnia, etc.) The social component examines social factors that might influence the health of an individual, these include things like our interactions with others, our culture, and our economic status. Our main goal will be to see how this is used in modern medical practice, particularly in Zambia.


To better explain how the biopsychosocial model can be used in modern medical practice,,, particularly in Zambia, let’s look at the problem of addiction. Pinel (2013) Addiction is the craving for the positive-incentive (expected pleasure-producing) properties of a substance (p.411). The biopsychosocial model attempts to define the causes of addiction, which are universally accepted to be quite complex.

The biological component suggests that some people have a more likely chance of developing an addiction than others. Research by Goldman, David, Gabor Oroszi, and Francesca Ducci (2006) proved that a genetic disposition to an addiction makes a person more likely to develop it compared to people without a family history of addiction. Therefore, it is possible that a person’s biological factors could play a role in the development of addiction.

The psychological component also plays a major role in developing an addiction. Many people, especially youths feel happy or relieved while engaging in self-rewarding but extremely harmful acts like drinking, smoking, overeating, using drugs, or gambling. The feeling of being rewarded is psychological, not biological; in most cases, the biological impact of the addictive behavior is damaging to the person’s physical well-being.

The social factor consists of the social and cultural environment surrounding the person, including interpersonal relationships and peer groups. Additionally, the availability of an addictive substance or the social mindset about activity best enjoyed in moderation can also affect the probability of addiction. For example, if a person’s peer group consists of co-workers who all drink heavily and consider it not only acceptable but somewhat necessary to navigate the pressures of the job, then the odds of developing an addiction increase. The biopsychosocial model can also be used in the treatment of flu, which is a very common illness in Zambia.

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The biological component suggests that the virus is spread from person to person mainly by droplets of respiratory fluids sent through the air when someone infected with the virus coughs or sneezes. Other people inhale the airborne virus and can become infected. Genetic dispositions to flu also play a role as some people tend to get the flu more easily than others.

The psychological component suggests that stress can cause the flu. Stress reduces the ability of the immune system to resist viruses. In a particular experiment carried out by Cohen, S., Tyrrell, D.A. and Smith, A.P. (1991) healthy volunteers were paid to have cold viruses swabbed into their noses. Those who reported the highest levels of stress before being exposed to the cold viruses developed worse cold symptoms and higher viral counts than those who reported being less stressed.

The social component suggests that the environment we are in can cause flu. When temperatures drop, the cold makes blood vessels in the nose constrict. This then makes it tough for your nose to fight off the virus and symptoms begin to show. While the flu is airborne, it can get passed around on our hands and other surfaces. If we don’t thoroughly wash our hands to remove germs we might get infected. Cold viruses can live anywhere hands have touched: door handles, toilet flushers, telephones,,, and people's cell phones.

The biopsychosocial model can also be used in the treatment of stress. Feldman (2010) defines stress as people’s response to events that threaten or challenge them. Pinel (2013) Stress that disrupts health or other aspects of functioning is called distress, and stress that improves health or other aspects of functioning is called eustress. Our main focus will be on distress and its negative impact on Zambian lives.

The biological component suggests that the genetic traits we inherit will determine our body's response to stress seeing how there is a difference in how each person responds to stress. Bourne (2000) What is inherited seems to be a general personality type. You might inherit a personality type that is more volatile, excitable,,, and reactive such that it is easily set off by minor stressful situations. Bourne (2000) Heredity can make you be born with a more reactive and excitable nervous system (p.24). Exposure to stress generates a rise in metabolism, which may be beneficial to cope with stressful situation. However, long-term exposure to stress results in a decline in the body’s overall level of biological functioning because of the constant secretion of stress-related hormones.

The psychological component suggests that our thoughts, what we think about our environment,,, and ourselves play a key role in developing stress. Bourne (2000) Self-talkis what you say to yourself in your mind. Much of your anxiety is created by statements you make to yourself that begin with the words “What if,” for example, “What if I have another panic attack?”, “What if I lose control while driving?”, “What will people think if I get anxious while standing in line?” This type of self-talk anticipates the worst before it even happens. The more common term for it is simply “worry” (p.39). Negative self-talk can make you put yourself under a high amount of stress. High levels of stress prevent people from adequately coping with life

The Social component suggests that our environment and the way we interact with it can stress us one way or another. For example,,, we get stressed when at work or school. Nurses, teachers, and students are subjected to very long and stressful working hours and this can have adverse effects on their health such as disrupting their Immune systems . Michael Gazzaniga, Todd Heathson & Diane Halpern (2015) The immune system is the body’s mechanism for dealing with invading microorganisms, such as allergens, bacteria, and viruses. Normally, when these foreign substances enter the body, the immune system launches into action to destroy the invaders. Stress interferes with this natural process (p.476).


By combining all three factors of the biopsychosocial model, medical practitioners have more personalized data for analyzing a patient’s illness. The information gathered allows for a clear and sound treatment plan. The biopsychosocial aims at curing the patient as a whole and not the disease alone.


  1. Engel, G. (1977) The need for a new medical model: a challenge for biomedical science. Science, 196:126-9.
  2. John P.J. Pinel. (2013). Biopsychology 9th Edition
  3. Michael Gazzaniga, Todd Heathson & Diane Halpern (2015). Psychological Science 5th Edition
  4. Roberts S. Feldman. (2010). Understanding Psychology Tenth Edition
  5. Edmund Bourne (2000). The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook
  6. Cohen, S., Tyrrell, D.A. and Smith, A.P., 1991. Psychological stress and susceptibility to the common cold. New England journal of medicine, 325(9), pp.606-612.
  7. Goldman, David, Gabor Oroszi, and Francesca Ducci. 'The genetics of addictions: uncovering the genes.' Focus 6.3 (2006): 521-415.
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