Perspective: BiomedicineMenace or Straw Man? Reexamining the Biopsychosocial Argument

Kontos, Nicholas MD

doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e31820e0d16
Philosophy of Medicine

More than 30 years after its introduction by George Engel, the biopsychosocial model exerts a major influence on the rhetoric and intentions of academic medicine. However, advocates of the model do not feel that it has significantly altered the practice of physicians, whom they portray as tightly clinging to a biomedical approach. Using Engel's original writings, those of his successors, and the work of medical historians, the author asserts that biopsychosocial advocates use clinical biomedicine as a straw man to support their argument. Proceeding from that point, the author attempts to demonstrate that excessive focus on this straw man has inhibited critique of the biopsychosocial model and the argument supporting it. He identifies failures to address clinical medicine's functional specificity and relationship with broader social trends as contributors to the biopsychosocial model's stagnation. The author proposes that it would be more productive to view clinical biomedicine as an epiphenomenon of the human traits of overenthusiasm and the need for security. Recognizing that medicine is made up of heterogeneous tasks, he observes that no one model, including the biopsychosocial model, tends to all of them. The biopsychosocial model would be best served by shedding the biomedical straw man and modifying its ambitions.

Dr. Kontos is instructor in psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, and director of transplantation psychiatry, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts.

Correspondence should be addressed to Dr. Kontos, Massachusetts General Hospital, 55 Fruit Street–Warren 605, Boston, MA 02114; telephone: (617) 643-6830; fax: (617) 726-5946; e-mail:

First published online February 21, 2011

© 2011 Association of American Medical Colleges