What is Social Medicine?


This is a question we hear all the time from students. This site has been created by faculty at the Department of Social and Family Medicine at AECOM to answer that question. The Social Medicine Portal will showcase the many aspects of social medicine and the incredible breadth of the movements inspired by it.

It is possible to argue that all medicine by its very nature is social. The way we define diseases and health, the methods we use for diagnosis and treatment, how we finance health care, all these cannot help but reflect the social environment in which medicine operates.

Social medicine, however, looks at these interactions in a systematic way and seeks to understand how health, disease and social conditions are interrelated. This type of study began in earnest in the early 1800’s. It was the time of the Industrial Revolution and it was impossible to ignore the extent to which the factory system impoverished the workers, thus creating poverty and disease.

The most famous representative of early social medicine is Rudolf Virchow, the distinguished German pathologist who developed the theory of cellular pathology. Virchow was also a social reformer who remarked that “politics is nothing more than medicine on a grand scale.” In the 20th century George Rosen would distill the Virchow’s principles into the following:

  1. Social and economic conditions profoundly impact health, disease and the practice of medicine.
  2. The health of the population is a matter of social concern.
  3. Society should promote health through both individual and social means.

As might be gathered from these ideas, social medicine was not simply an academic pursuit. Its practitioners were political reformers, radicals, activists. Virchow believed that the “physician was the natural advocate for the poor.” And this defense of social justice would stamp future generations of physicians and health care workers. Social medicine has grown and developed in many different ways in the past two centuries. At times it has seemed as if the “biomedical paradigm” would make social issues in medicine irrelevant. Yet we cannot escape the reality that we are social animals and our diseases occurs in “social animals” and not in test-tubes. The current debate over HIV treatment access illustrates both the astounding success and spectacular failure of modern biomedicine. Why is it that most AIDS patients will simply not get the medications that can save their lives?

You can read a fuller explanation of these ideas in our paper “What is Social Medicine?” that was published in Monthly Review.

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6 Responses to “What is Social Medicine?”

  1. 1Susan Rosenthal

    The founder of Social Medicine is generally considered to be Rudolf Virchow, but that title properly belongs to Frederick Engels (1820 – 1895).

    While Virchow believed that the “physician was the natural advocate for the poor,” Engels argued for the elimination of poverty through the elimination of class divisions

    Engels was the first to connect a broad number of medical and social problems to the way capitalism is organized. His research into the human impact of the English industrial revolution was published in The Condition of The Working Class in England: From Personal Observation and Authentic Sources.


  2. 2Joe Thomas

    ……then, what is the difference between public health and social medicine?

  3. 3Dringo

    Dear Matt Anderson
    Could you please tell me what the differences are, between the scientific fields of social medicine and medical sociology? My impression is that there is a huge overlap, but i cannot find an online source which explains this in detail.
    Thanks for your time.

  4. 4bronxdoc

    Dear Deepak,

    Thanks for your query. This website and our associated journal (http://www.socialmedicine.info) are attempts to answer your question.

    The specific content matter of social medicine depends to a great extent on the social context. This will be different in different societies and will vary over time.

    Many of us think that all of medicine is social. I am told that Foucault once remarked that a “non social medicine” simply does not exist.

    Matt Anderson



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    […]What is Social Medicine? at The Social Medicine Portal[…]…

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