Medicalization as a Rising Rational Myth: Population Health Implications, Reproduction, and Public Response

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In this dissertation, I study medicalization, a wide spread phenomenon in this world but understudied in the current literature. The main theoretical focus of this dissertation is on expanding the medicalization theories. Questioning the breadth of conceptualization, the feasibility of measurement, and the depth of empirical implications in the extant medicalization theories, this dissertation proposes a new conceptual model of medicalization and further develops a quantitative measure of medicalization by disaggregating it into empirically valid dimensions that could be used to examine how degree of medicalization is related to social outcomes. Specifically, I conceptualize medicalization as an institutionalization process whereby the medical model becomes increasingly dominant in the explanation of health, illness, and other human problems and behavior. Medicalization is multidimensional and is represented by expansions in the three major components of the health care system: increasing medical investment, medical professionalization/specialization, and the relative size of the pharmaceutical industry.

Based on this new conceptual model and measurement, I probe three research questions: (1) how medicalization may impact population health in the context of recent epidemiologic transitions and how this impact may differ by the stages of epidemiologic transition and socioeconomic development; (2) what are the mechanisms that reproduce medicalization; and (3) how the lay public may respond to medicalization, the institution of medicine, and the medical profession.

This dissertation links several lines of theoretical and empirical research from medical sociology, demography, epidemiology, health economics and management, and medical science, and extensively employs OECD Health Data, World Development Indicators, the World Values Survey, the European Values Study data, the U.S. General Social Survey, and the U.S. National Health Interview Survey. It uses several advanced statistical methods, e.g., multiple imputations, latent variable analysis, mixed models, generalized estimating equations models, generalized method of moments models, difference-in-difference models, and hierarchical-age-period-cohort models.

Results for the first research question suggest that various dimensions of medicalization vary in importance on population health and these effects also differ by the stages of epidemiologic transition and socioeconomic development. I discuss the mechanisms linking various dimensions of medicalization to population health and then discuss these findings in the context of epidemiologic transition, fundamental causes of disease and death, and global health movement.

Results for the second research question suggest that medicalization at both the societal and individual levels negatively affect individual subjective health, which leads to increasing health care utilization. These social processes function together to promote and reproduce medicalization at societal level. I discuss several pathways linking medicalization to lower subjective health and other agents of medicalization.

Results for the third research question suggest that American's "confidence in the medical institution and profession" has continuously declined in the last three decades and groups with higher socioeconomic status report lower obedience to doctors' authority, but are more likely to trust doctors' ethics than their counterparts. I discuss the mechanisms for the changes in public confidence in the medical institution and profession, the status of medicine and the medical profession in the era of medicalization, the paradox of opposite trends in attitudes toward medicine and health utilization behavior, and group differences in obedience and trust.






Zheng, Hui (2011). Medicalization as a Rising Rational Myth: Population Health Implications, Reproduction, and Public Response. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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