Opinion: Stay vigilant against medicalization

Reader submission by Danielle Robbins

Medicalization a process by which human problems are treated as medical problems. When medicalization was introduced into Western society, it formed an oppressive structure that capitalizes on society’s perception of health. Medicalization plays a role in shaping society’s ideals of normality and is often presented under the guise of concern. It is touted as a comprehensive and informative way of conceptualizing ideas that were not previously relevant in a medical context. Whether inadvertent or intentional, the concept fails to acknowledge many inequities and inevitably fosters them.

Medicalization pathologizes people’s physicality and life experiences. It does not take into account our personal and cultural presences. By spreading the idea that health should be seen in this definite and exact way, we feed into the notion that anyone who exists outside that mold is abnormal, or even inferior. Medicalization was implemented to improve society, but it has primarily served to benefit capitalistic interests and acquire the complicity of individuals. When medical professionals, scholars, and legislative officials all maintain that our personhood should be seen through the lens of medicine, biology ends up taking precedence over culture. It subsequently operates as a conduit to make people question their own experiences and views of health-related topics. Moreover, when experiences are medicalized, it is a way for the health system to profit from those seeking care. America’s healthcare industry is worth trillions of dollars, yet the majority of Americans are unable to afford adequate care. This matter is often compounded by other accessibility issues. The consequence is clear—the majority of society is not capable of affording medical attention, even though it is being pushed so forcefully upon them.

It is evident that medicalization can be used to impose social norms. What is medicalized varies in different places, spaces, and cultures. What is deemed medically relevant will ultimately dictate one’s understanding of the world. How words like “healthy” and “standard” are defined ultimately influence our experiences. Non-health-related concerns such as ethnic features or cosmetic features are often medicalized. Certain ethnic features are deemed attractive, where others are seen in a negative light. This is particularly the case for anything that deviates from white, which is promoted as the standard or ideal in our hegemonic nation. Americans undergo drastic measures to meet impossible standards. One study has shown that “females are socially influenced to view their bodies through the lens of medical terminology including terms associated with aesthetic flaws and genetics as an issue in which they should seek the help of medical professionals.” By medicalizing racial and ethnic features, it is suggested that they are medically-relevant. It also implies that race accounts for human distinctions, and, perhaps even more dangerously, that race and biology have a close connection.

Medicalization shifts attention away from the racial, gender, and socioeconomic inequities that account for actual disparities. It operates to validate and rationalize these inequities, further propagating them. In this sense, medicalization is used as a tool to justify an oppressive and hierarchical structure. There are factors that contribute to one’s circumstances that do not involve health, but medicalization often disregards them to solidify and preserve its own agenda.

Medicalization cannot be beneficial overall unless it serves all of society equally. Under the colonialist, capitalistic, patriarchal, and hegemonic authority that has shaped our nation, this seems like an impossible goal. Medicalization disregards the embodied experience of the individual. Medicalization can also reinforce the elitist idea that medical professionals understand the patient’s experience better than the patient him/herself. Similarly, medical jargon serves as a way for medical professionals to further disconnect people from their embodied experiences. This impacts how we perceive our personhood.

While there may be merit in viewing life through a medical lens, it is detrimental if it serves to override all other explanations for our being. It is unethical and ultimately consequential if it is not accessible to all. There are many instances where it may be beneficial, but it often does more harm than good. Our experiences do not occur in a vacuum—they are a reflection of both biology and the environment. Medicalization perpetuates healthcare inequalities, and to do so while such broad disparities exist is problematic. Healthcare should be a human right.

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