Global social medicine is an interdisciplinary field that brings social sciences together with medicine to support the development of effective health policies on an international level.
What is Global Health & Social Medicine?
What is social medicine?
By definition, social medicine is a medical field based on the social factors that contribute to health and illness. As compared to the primary focuses on biomedicine today, which include the pharmacological, molecular, and genetic bases of disease and treatments, social medicine instead looks to focus on therapeutic interventions as they relate to various social conditions.
The birth of social medicine is often traced back to the work of German physician and politician Rudolf Virchow. While conducting his work during the 19th century, Virchow urged physicians to go beyond individual explanations of disease and instead consider the social factors that may play a role in the health and illnesses of their patients.
Social medicine was not officially recognized as a medical discipline until the mid-twentieth century. Since then, this medical field has been characterized by the numerous institutional, intellectual, and political efforts that have been made to bring medical equality to all. Several fields have also emerged as branches of social medicine, which include social epidemiology, social psychology, population health, and health economics, to name a few.
Social medicine around the world
Most regions around the world have their own distinct histories of social medicine, all of which emphasize the role that social and cultural factors have in the clinical setting.
Throughout the 1930s in Latin America, for example, several social medicine revolutions based on the teachings of liberation theology took place. The social medicine movement in Brazil during the 1980s, for example, led to the recognition of healthcare as a universal right. Overall, these efforts have allowed for social medicine throughout Latin America to be largely focused on improving the social and political factors that affect health outcomes throughout these nations.
Shortly before India gained independence from Great Britain in 1947, this large country began to recognize how underdeveloped and malnourished communities prevented adequate economic growth for the nation as a whole. Around the same time, the Bhore Committee was established to inquire about the varying health conditions throughout India. This committee, which was largely influenced by advisers who viewed public health as an essential component of a nation’s socio-economic development, eventually supported movements that led to the establishment of state-supported health services.
In the United Kingdom in the 1940s, John Ryle called for the creation of a new scientific field that would address the ultimate causes of disease. Moreover, Ryle was interested in taking social medical students from the hospitals to the homes, shops, factories, mining townships, docks, and other everyday locations of British citizens.
The work of Ryle has often been considered the foundation for the U.K.’s current National Health Service. Similarly, other nations throughout Europe also began to invest in socialized healthcare programs that offered publicly funded healthcare programs.
Although social medicine has been a heavily debated topic for several decades in the United States, free clinics and state-funded community healthcare programs have been developed alongside contemporary civil rights and social justice movements.
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What is global social medicine?
Global social medicine is a branch of social medicine that aims to promote human rights and social justice in medicine while simultaneously recognizing the complex histories that exist throughout many parts of the world. Importantly, the ‘global’ in global social medicine does not represent a single approach that should be used for medical decisions everywhere but instead looks to analyze how local and regional injustices in healthcare impact translational political economies and wider social determinants.
An additional goal of social medicine is to implement improved local health decisions that could be used to improve healthcare conditions in other parts of the world. In doing so, global social medicine recognizes the roles of local healthcare providers, pre-existing social medicine infrastructures, and various healing approaches in an effort to eliminate the supremacy of certain national healthcare entities over another.
Rather than focus a global health program on expensive biomedical and pharmaceutical technologies, global social medicine instead looks to change international structures that have caused marginalized care for less-developed nations around the world.
- Pentecost, M., Adams, V., Baru, R., et al. (2021). Revitalising global social medicine. The Lancet 398(10300); 573-574. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(21)01003-5.
- Adams, V., Behague, D., Caduff, C., et al. (2019). Re-imagining global health through social medicine. Global Public Health. doi:10.1080/17441692.2019.1587639.
- What is social medicine? [Online]. Available from: https://globalsocialmedicine.org/what-is-social-medicine/