Social Medicine: History, What It Studies, Applications

The social medicine is a discipline that studies the social, genetic and environmental factors that influence the generation of diseases in order to promote prevention methods and protection of the individual and community.

Social medicine is in charge of predicting how these factors can influence the appearance of future diseases; and it is applied actively in the communities, attending and knowing closely the needs of the population.

The creation of government networks of hospital centers and the design of medical care programs are some of the solutions that social medicine offers to reach the population most in need.

History of social medicine

Historians point out that social medicine originated in the nineteenth century, as a result of the changes suffered by society as a result of the so-called Industrial Revolution .

At that time, there was an increase in poverty and disease among the most deprived, making it clear that changes in society could have a determining effect on its population.

The study of this social phenomenon and the medical practices generated as a consequence, became what we know today as social medicine.

Precursors of social medicine

One cannot talk about the history of social medicine without mentioning the German physician Johann Peter Frank (1745-1821). As part of his medical practice, Frank created a school for midwives, founded two hospitals and a surgical chair, in addition to providing medical care to the elderly, the most deprived and the inmates.

He wrote the book A Complete System for a Medical Police in which he proposed regulations for medical practice and in which he described the social elements that affected the health of the common individual at that time.

The German physician Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902) is another of the pioneers of social medicine due to the findings he recorded in 1848 during a typhus epidemic in the province of Silesia, former Prussia. Virchow, identified social factors such as poverty, a low level of education and the absence of democracy, as key elements in the development of the epidemic.

For his part, the English doctor, John Snow (1813-1858) is remembered in the field of social medicine for demonstrating how the conditions of poverty influenced the cholera epidemic recorded in 1854 in London.

Snow showed that the majority of reports of the disease were concentrated in deprived areas where the water consumed was contaminated by fecal matter . Knowing this made it possible to handle the problem more effectively and take measures so that it did not recur.

Social medicine spreads around the world

With the passage of time, social medicine became a discipline that had to be applied to guarantee the well-being of the population. In England, the medical commitment to its population was fulfilled in 1940 with the creation of the National Health Service, an example that was later replicated in other parts of Europe.

In the United States, medicine took a similar step in the 1950s, and the discipline later spread to Latin America.

What does social medicine study

This medical discipline studies the impact of social, cultural and economic conditions, race, levels of nutrition and education on the health of communities.

A study based on these aspects could offer a medical prognosis on the health of the analyzed population, allowing us to know in advance which sector is in danger of getting sick and why.

Principles of social medicine

Since its appearance, social medicine had several meanings and was adapted to different social conditions. However, the Polish doctor Salomon Neumann (1819-1908) assures that this practice is basically governed by the following principles:

– Social conditions determine the health of the individual.

– The health of the population is a matter that concerns the whole of society.

– Society is obliged to promote health towards the individual and all communities.

Applications  of social medicine

For the World Health Organization, a series of factors must be taken into account to effectively provide a medical practice framed in the social aspect. Among those that stand out:

– Offer health systems that serve the population without distinction of class, education, sex, age or nationality.

– Prevent epidemics that could originate as a consequence of the economic conditions of the communities.

– Guarantee the supply of vaccines and medicines.

– Promote literacy in communities that deserve it.

– Diagnose diseases, treat them and monitor the patient.

– Design rehabilitation programs.

– Create evaluation committees that study not only what the community needs, but also the degree of effectiveness of the medical strategy designed for that population.

– Educate the patient to change negative habits, learn about nutritional options, the benefits of daily exercise, the impact of stress, among other aspects.

The social training of the doctor

To achieve the above, it is necessary for the doctor to have a training in social medicine, which allows him to understand the magnitude of the challenge involved in caring for a population without resources, whose condition worsens due to cultural or economic factors that play against them.

Currently there are departments of social medicine in medical schools around the world. They aim to train future doctors on the social dimensions of health.

Through these departments, constant research is carried out to improve the practice of medicine and the development of health policies.

Everyone’s job

International organizations and governments of the countries work every year in the creation of health campaigns adapted to the social challenges of each population, remembering at all times that health is a right that must be guaranteed to every human being regardless of race or stratum Social.

For their part, it is the duty of the members of these communities to contribute with changes in harmful habits and take an interest in bringing the little ones closer to health programs to promote their healthy growth and prevent diseases or malformations.


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  5. Harvard Medical School. (2019). Global Health and Social Medicine. Taken from
  6. Matthew R. Anderson, Lanny Smith, Victor W. Sidel (2005). What is Social Medicine. Taken from

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