In his book The Medicaliztion of Society, Peter Conrad defines medicalization as the “process by which nonmedical problems become defined and treated as medical problems, usually in terms of illness and disorders,” using medical terminology, medical framework, and medical treatment interventions (4). Over the last decade, due to not only physicians, but also individuals, social groups, and pharmaceutical companies, there has been a trend towards medicalization and medical jurisdiction leading to an increasing “number of life problems,” everyday life events, and “problems that previously were not deemed to fall within the medical sphere” now being defined as “medical” (3,4). Thus, medicalization encompasses deviance from and across a broad range of normal life activities.
Conrad touches on a number of positive consequences as a result of medicalization. These include reduction of stigma, allowance of individuals to function better in society, acceptance of various social groups, access to accommodations, extension of the sick role, legitimization of individuals’ concerns and ailments, increasing awareness of social pressures, and increasing insurance coverage.
At the same time, I believe Conrad notes one major problem with medicalization: the fact that it “transforms many human differences [and aspects of everyday life] into pathologies” (148). These include differences in aging, learning style, sexual desire, stature, and shyness. In this respect, medicalization narrows “the range of what is considered acceptable” and normal and “diminishes our tolerance for and appreciation of the diversity of life” (7, 148). Additionally, over the course of time, the standards for what are considered “abnormal” (ex. high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, etc) are continuously being changed and lowered. Thus, together, more and more people have been categorized as being unhealthy and “abnormal.” Since this has been the trend in the past, it seems that it will continue to be the trend in the future. Thus, medicalization, in a sense, seems to be a never-ending process where only more and more people are going to be categorized as unhealthy and “abnormal.” This warrants the question: what is/will truly be considered normal, expected, and acceptable in life and our society? What differences truly warrant/will warrant treatment? Eventually, all of them?
As Conrad notes, in our society, health is a high value-asset. In an essay titled “What’s Making Us Sick Is an Epidemic of Diagnoses” in the New York Times, H. Gilbert Welch, Lisa Schwartz, and Steven Woloshin make us consider that many of us are told that we are sick only because of the growing number of “medical diagnoses” existing as a result of medicalization. However, they state that “doctors need to remember the value of reassuring people that they are not sick,” thereby once again valuing health itself. They make a very interesting suggestion that “someone should start monitoring a new health metric: the proportion of the population not requiring medical care.” Perhaps looking at such a metric will help us re-value health as a society as well as help us reconsider the expansion of medicalization and the concept of normalcy.