What is the Biopsychosocial Approach?

While western medicine uses a biomedical approach to health, health psychologists prefer to evaluate health through a biopsychosocial lens. Quite simply, this approach includes the influences of biological factors, psychological factors, and social factors when looking at overall health. The biopsychosocial approach focuses on the biology or physiology underlying health; the psychology of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors influencing health; and the ways that society and culture all influence health. The biopsychosocial approach allows us to see how health changes not only biologically, but how your inner thoughts and feelings and the society around you influences your perception and determination of health.


So, what’s the big difference between a biomedical approach and a biopsychosocial approach? Well, when we break it apart, it comes down to cells vs societal influences. The biomedical approach takes health from a purely biological perspective. If this cell does this, then this is what happens to the body. If this muscle does this, then this must happen. But take a step back…is that really how health works? The biopsychosocial approach suggests that there is more. In 1977, George Engel argued that well-being includes the effects of psychological, behavioral, and social dimensions. His biopsychosocial approach advocates for the necessity of treating and thinking about illnesses by including the social and behavioral factors that play a role in overall health (e.g., poor eating habits and obesity, smoking, stress/anxiety/depression, etc.).


Here is an example of how a biopsychosocial approach differs from a purely biomedical perspective.



  • BIOMEDICAL APPROACH: A biomedical approach analyzes smokers from the biological perspective and reasons for smoking: addiction or heritability. However, we can see from a biopsychosocial approach that there are many reasons that people start smoking, and they are not necessarily from a biological origin.
  • BIOPSYCHOSOCIAL APPROACH: People may start smoking for PSYCHOLOGICAL reasons, such as thinking it makes them less stressed or because of personality traits (extroverts are more likely to smoke). People may start smoking due to SOCIAL networks or perceived cultural norms. Finally, we still must note that addictions and heritability are BIOLOGICAL components that can contribute to smoking behaviors.


Gurung, R. A. R. (2014). Health Psychology: A Cultural Approach. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.