Some diseases have a distinct, interrelated nature requiring analysis of each of the contributing factors to diagnose and treat appropriately. One of the best examples of a disease which fits these criteria is addiction. As applied to the treatment of addiction, the biopsychosocial approach endeavors to link biological, psychological, and social processes, as well as their interactions. The goal is to provide for a more comprehensive recognition and treatment of addiction.

Addiction often exhibits these different factors in plain sight; the key is the willingness to acknowledge that for a proper diagnosis and treatment, all contributing factors must be considered. This process requires not only the identification of various biological, psychological, and social processes but more importantly an understanding of how these processes influence one another in driving addictive behaviors.

For example, the interaction of biological and psychological traits with social circumstances such as generational poverty or lack of educational, vocational, or other economic opportunities can contribute to addiction. By way of a more specific example, a biological condition such as a workplace injury requiring long-term pain management, coupled with a social circle that enables or even encourages excessive use of painkillers, could easily result in life-changing heroin addiction.

Not all factors need to be harmful to influence a biopsychosocial evaluation. In the same scenario above, if the social circle of the patient were to include people who actively monitor the use of painkillers and provide positive support, addiction may never take place. The key is the interconnectivity of the factors across multiple disciplines, with each element given the proper weight based on the specific circumstances of the patient.

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What is the Biopsychosocial Model?

In 1977, Dr. George Engel proposed the biopsychosocial model of health and illness, which suggests that behaviors, thoughts, and emotions may influence a person’s physical state. The biopsychosocial model disputed the long-held scientific assumption that treatment of health and disease were limited solely to biological factors.

Engel argued that not only should psychological and social factors be considered in assessing health, but that these factors also influence biological functioning itself. He asserted this to be a more realistic model in light of the role lifestyles play in a society on the cusp of the twenty-first century. The goal of the biopsychosocial model, therefore, is to not only improve on the disease approach but also change conventional wisdom of the proper way to assess and treat health and illness held by the medical model.

Traditionally, the universally accepted approach toward health and disease has been the medical or biological model. This model limits treatment of a person’s poor health almost exclusively to medicinal remedies. Use of the medical model made sense as scientific advances yielded not only direct cures but also preventative measures for serious diseases such as vaccinations. There is nothing wrong with the medical approach; until recent decades, there was insufficient credible scientific research to suggest an alternative approach. However, as our understanding of the human mind continued to expand through research in psychology and the social sciences, new ideas challenging the medical approach emerged. Instead of replacing the medical model, this new model calls for the inclusion of psychological and social processes in the overall diagnosis. The result is a more thorough model of human health intended for application in routine clinical practice.

Engel cites the widespread discontentment with the medical model as an impetus for a shift to a more holistic approach, even going as far as to describe the long-held medical model as dogma. Engel said, “We are now faced with the necessity and the challenge to broaden the approach to disease to include the psychosocial without sacrificing the enormous advantages of the biomedical approach.”

Biopsychosocial Model with Examples

To better demonstrate how the biopsychosocial model can be utilized in modern practice, let’s return to the treatment of addiction.  The biopsychosocial model attempts to define the causes of addiction, which are universally accepted to be quite complex.

The biological factor asserts that some people have an increased likelihood of developing an addiction than others. Research suggests that a family history of addictions make a person more likely to develop an addiction 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 factor also plays a dominant role in developing an addiction. Many people feel happy or relieved while engaging in self-rewarding but ultimately harmful acts, such as 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 actually 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.

By combining all three factors of the biopsychosocial model, physicians, social workers, and psychiatrists have more personalized data for analyzing a patient’s addiction. The broader spectrum of information allows not only for a clearer path of treatment but also for monitoring implementation and coordinating post-treatment preventative care. The result is a more thorough analysis and a more comprehensive treatment plan.

Preparing to Make a Difference

As the biopsychosocial model of treatment continues to grow and evolve, so does the need for qualified professionals in the healthcare industry. Furthermore, the recent focus on preventative care by many major employers and health insurance companies suggest a steady, if not a rapid increase in professional opportunities for qualified candidates.

Whether your goal is to earn a bachelor’s degree in social work, a masters’ degree in clinical mental health counseling, or any of the rapidly growing fields in the healthcare industry, you can get the education and support you need at Malone University. Visit Malone online today for more information on how you can take that critical first step on the path to success.



Buchman, D. Z., Skinner, W., & Illes, J. (2010). Negotiating the Relationship Between Addiction, Ethics, and Brain Science. AJOB Neuroscience, 1(1), 36–45.

Engel G. The need for a new medical model: a challenge for biomedicine. Science. 1977;196:129–136.

Engel G. The clinical application of the biopsychosocial model. Am J Psychiatry. 1980;137:535–544.

Engel GL. How much longer must medicine’s science be bounded by a seventeenth-century worldview? In: White KL, ed. The Task of Medicine: Dialogue at Wickenburg. Menlo Park, Calif: The Henry Kaiser Family Foundation; 1988:113–136.