The sociological approach to medicine is one of the biggest subsections of the whole field of sociology, and has become an important component of health care disciplines such as public health, health care management, clinical medicine and nursing. It involves a sociological analysis of medical organizations, the actions of healthcare professionals, and the social and cultural effects of medical practice. The field of medical sociology regularly interacts with the sociology of science, knowledge, and technology studies, while also working alongside social epistemology. Medical sociologists are interested in the experiences of patients and are frequently found working at the fringes of public health, social work, demography and gerontology. Students are neither encouraged nor required to know anything about the finer details of medical practice.
Medical sociology comprises elements including:
- Social epidemiology: the study of socioeconomic, demographic, and behavioral factors in the causes of disease and mortality
- Development and organizational dynamics of occupations and professions in healthcare, hospitals, health maintenance and long-term care organizations. This includes inter-organizational relationships between patient and physicians
- The reactions of societies to illness, including cultural meanings and normative expectations
- The social policies, social movements, politics, and economic conditions that shape and are shaped by health and disease within countries, as well as in a comparative, international context
The beginnings of medical sociology can be traced back to the culmination of World War II. Science and medicine were becoming increasingly dominant cultural forces, and this in turn fueled optimism over the possibility of the elimination of many of society's ills. As a result of this, the 1950s gave rise to scholarly interest in the development of medical sociology. During this period of growth, a number of sociology's most prominent theorists turned their attention to healthcare. Their approach to the topic was not due to any particular interest in medicine, but simply out of an interest in studying authority and the maintenance of social order.
U.S. medical sociology witnessed a keen expansion during the 1960s and 1970s as social science research become favored by the federal government and influential private foundations. This led to medical sociology becoming an increasingly important part of the university curriculum. Crucial financial benefactors during this period included the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the National Center for Health Services Research (NCHSR). This has led to sociology courses on health and medicine being found in nearly every graduate program in the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany, with each nation's governments regularly attributing funds. Access to health care became a primary policy concern, while research funding prioritized any biomedical and psychosocial aspects of health care such as patient care and disease and its prevention.
The environment of medical sociology drastically altered in the United States during the 1980s. This period of turbulence threatened the authority and autonomy of physicians. The federal government's rapidly expanding role in financing healthcare via the creation of the Medicare and Medicaid programs led to a shift in federal policy. This was escalated with the rise in health care costs and general business concerns. Attention was now placed on cost control and cost effectiveness of care. Research funding priorities switched from the behavioral and social sciences to clinical medicine, epidemiology and economics. These changes contributed to criticisms in the late 1980s and the 1990s that medical sociology research had become fragmented.
Medical sociology's early growth can be attributed to scholars working outside sociology departments in medical schools, nursing schools, schools of public health, and health administration programs. They made great contributions to medical and health care disciplines. In addition, sociologists contributed to the development of social epidemiology, mapping the social patterns of disease, and adding social factors to the causal understanding of mortality and chronic diseases. The present day has seen a blurring of the boundaries between those working in health care settings and those in academic departments of sociology, with both conducting applied research contributing to basic sociological theorizing. Medical sociologists often become involved in research shaped by medical issues combined with a bio-medicine.
Concepts such as medicalization have added to the broader understanding of social order and social control, while medicine recognizes sociology as an important discipline that is capable of making a great contribution to the application and understanding of health care. Academic sociology is now regarded as a rewarding area of specialization and medical sociologists have become involved in health policy research at both federal and local community level.