The biopsychosocial model 25 years later: principles, practice, and scientific inquiry

Ann Fam Med. Nov-Dec 2004;2(6):576-82. doi: 10.1370/afm.245.


The biopsychosocial model is both a philosophy of clinical care and a practical clinical guide. Philosophically, it is a way of understanding how suffering, disease, and illness are affected by multiple levels of organization, from the societal to the molecular. At the practical level, it is a way of understanding the patient's subjective experience as an essential contributor to accurate diagnosis, health outcomes, and humane care. In this article, we defend the biopsychosocial model as a necessary contribution to the scientific clinical method, while suggesting 3 clarifications: (1) the relationship between mental and physical aspects of health is complex--subjective experience depends on but is not reducible to laws of physiology; (2) models of circular causality must be tempered by linear approximations when considering treatment options; and (3) promoting a more participatory clinician-patient relationship is in keeping with current Western cultural tendencies, but may not be universally accepted. We propose a biopsychosocial-oriented clinical practice whose pillars include (1) self-awareness; (2) active cultivation of trust; (3) an emotional style characterized by empathic curiosity; (4) self-calibration as a way to reduce bias; (5) educating the emotions to assist with diagnosis and forming therapeutic relationships; (6) using informed intuition; and (7) communicating clinical evidence to foster dialogue, not just the mechanical application of protocol. In conclusion, the value of the biopsychosocial model has not been in the discovery of new scientific laws, as the term "new paradigm" would suggest, but rather in guiding parsimonious application of medical knowledge to the needs of each patient.

MeSH terms

  • Delivery of Health Care*
  • Evidence-Based Medicine
  • Hospital-Patient Relations
  • Humans
  • Models, Psychological*
  • Observer Variation