Skip to content
Health, Sports & Psychology

What is biomedicine?

Updated Monday 27th February 2012

How did 'scientific medicine' come to be the dominant method of health studies in the western world?

Green antibiotic pills Creative commons image Icon Biotic lensbaby / Sparky / CC BY-NC 2.0 under Creative-Commons license Adapted from the Open University module K203, Working for Health.

Modern western scientific medicine is often called "biomedical" because it explains health in terms of biology. It attaches importance to learning about body structure (anatomy) and systems (physiology), in particular to understanding mechanisms like the heart, arteries, nerves, brain and so on.

Health is seen as a state where all the parts of the body function normally, like a new repaired car. If bits go wrong—if the body is struck down by a virus, internal changes damage it, or parts wear out—it goes in for repair by specialists. This view offers a particular and distinctive way of ‘seeing’ and understanding bodies and health, a set of guidelines about relating to them and dealing with them—to look after them as systems which need care and proper maintenance by their owners.

So a biomedical account is one which gives a physical or biological explanation for health, and offers physical/biological methods for ‘repairing’ bodies when they are not working correctly. Certain tests establish what is wrong. Then antibiotics or other medicines act as a cure, or surgery can repair or replace body parts. The biomedical model is an integral part of western cultures and the way health and healthcare are perceived. It is, in many instances, an efficient and effective model of healthcare (consider broken legs, tumours, tuberculosis, slipped discs and a host of other illnesses or physical problems).

People’s views of their health, how it can be maintained and the appropriate action to combat illness when it is identified are, of course, individual. However, individual understandings emerge partly from wider historical and cultural patterns and trends. It is therefore worth reflecting on how the biomedical way of conceptualising health has come to dominate in the West.

Biomedicine, public health and germ theory

With the rise of biomedicine came greater knowledge about the causes of infectious diseases. With greater urbanisation during the Industrial Revolution came widespread disease, which led to the public health movement. The key tenet of public health theories, of whatever type, was (and is) that health and disease arise from the relationship of individuals and populations with their natural or manufactured environment, and that the promotion of health and wellbeing requires intervention to modify or transform that environment.

In the late nineteenth century, however, the significance of public health theory was challenged by the germ theory of disease which suggested that disease was caused by bacteria, and that a specific micro-organism would be present in every case of a particular disease. Most medical research was by now being done within a dominant scientific paradigm. Germ theory was derived from nineteenth century microscopic research by Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, among others. Pasteur demonstrated the existence of micro-organisms, which could be killed by sterilisation and the exclusion of ‘impure air’, or made to multiply rapidly in suitable media. Koch succeeded in isolating the anthrax bacillus, growing it in culture, and proving by experiment that its spores could reproduce rapidly even after a long delay, when conditions became favourable. This provided the other principles: that the micro-organism should be able to be grown outside its host, and should still be capable of producing the disease again in the host body.

Germ theory resulted in an enhanced status for laboratory science, and for hospital medicine and surgery. Laboratory scientists such as Louis Pasteur, Marie Curie, James Lister and Robert Koch could isolate and classify bacteria; medical people could use this knowledge to diagnose more accurately and operate more safely. Germ theory focused attention on the specific aetiology and the immediate cause of disease. It also focused attention on the individual and on interpersonal contact, rather than on the significance of the wider social environment in promoting health. Within the public health field, greater attention was given to personal hygiene and to educating working-class women in mothering skills. Germ theory reinforced the official attack on personal filth—spitting, lice, scabies, dirty bodies—but provided no commentary on the social conditions which made such problems widespread in poorer districts.

Germ theory and laboratory science remain important today as doctors rely more and more on laboratory testing to help them diagnose and monitor specific conditions or diseases. However, specific aetiology (that is, the same micro-organism causing the same illness) became increasingly open to question by the mid-twentieth century as scientific research revealed the significance of co-factors, host state, as well as invading organism. In the 1970s Engel called for a ‘new medical model’ which emphasised multi-causality. Research into AIDS, for example, has produced theories which emphasise multiple causes.

Biomedicine has been a dynamic model and played a hugely important part in people’s understandings of health and illness and (perhaps for a majority of people in the UK today) their compliance with the system that supports biomedicine. Proponents of biomedicine suggest that it stands with many fantastic accomplishments: the reduction of high mortality rates such as those found in childhood in the earlier part of the twentieth century, and the eradication of some of the major killers, such as smallpox, polio etc. However, an opposing argument has been put forward that mortality has been dramatically reduced during the past century because of improved housing and working conditions and particularly improved nutrition, rather than because of any particular preventive or biomedical measure, such as immunisation or the widespread use of antibiotics. Whereas biomedical discourse tends to focus our attention on medical advances and interventions at an individual level, others might wish to emphasise links between the total environment and health.


For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

Public health approaches to infectious disease Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: copyright © WHO/TDR/Martel free course icon Level 1 icon

Science, Maths & Technology 

Public health approaches to infectious disease

This free course, Public health approaches to infectious disease, reviews the current global burden of infectious disease, the public health strategies that are reducing the impact of some major infections and the challenges facing national and international organisations in preventing illness and death caused by bacteria, viruses and parasites.

Free course
3 hrs
Challenging the biomedical model of childbirth Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: iStock free course icon Level 1 icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Challenging the biomedical model of childbirth

Health means different things to different people, and this is reflected in the experiences of pregnancy and childbirth in this free course, Challenging the biomedical model of childbirth. People's views on health and disease are often influenced by official discourse which today, just as in times past, has projected authoritative messages about what should be considered important. Such official accounts contain judgements about health, emphasising some ideas and practices while marginalising others. In childbirth, there have been many challenges to these official ways of seeing and doing, and this course focuses on some of them.

Free course
5 hrs
Bang Goes The Theory 6: Episode 8 Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

TV, Radio & Events 

Bang Goes The Theory 6: Episode 8

This week, Philippa takes her pet to a lab to find out how dogs can be good for people's health


Health, Sports & Psychology 

Sickle cell disease: a lethal advantage

Sickle cell disease is an inherited blood disorder that occurs in 1 in every 375 African Americans. There is currently no cure for this life-shortening disease. These five video tracks will help you to understand exactly what sickle cell disease is and answer many of the questions surrounding it. They'll also explain its hereditary nature in people of African descent. This material forms part of The Open University course SK195 Human genetics and health issues.

35 mins
Preparing For Development Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Tim Allen - photographer article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Preparing For Development

Try a sample Open University course, with this extract from Preparing For Development

Ageism debate: In the corner shop Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Brad Calkins | activity icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Ageism debate: In the corner shop

Have you heard terms such as 'grandad' being used by others when talking to or about old people? Join the debate.

The MMR vaccine: Public health, private fears Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 3 icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

The MMR vaccine: Public health, private fears

A decade ago, the possibility of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism hit the media. Fear of the vaccine spread rapidly and, despite an almost unanimous consensus that the claim was unfounded, still persists today. In this free course, The MMR vaccine: Public health, private fears, we'll examine why this controversy took on such a life of its own and why parents still agonise about the vaccine.

Free course
20 hrs
OU on the BBC: Can Gerry Robinson Fix Dementia Care? Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

OU on the BBC: Can Gerry Robinson Fix Dementia Care?

Gerry Robinson visits a number of struggling care homes, examining the way they are run, in a bid to improve conditions for residents.

Ageism debate: In the benefits office Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Brad Calkins | activity icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Ageism debate: In the benefits office

What would it take to make everyday life more age-friendly? Join the debate.