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BMC Fam Pract. 2008 May 15;9:30. doi: 10.1186/1471-2296-9-30.

Functional illness in primary care: dysfunction versus disease.

Author information

  • 1Department of Primary Care and Public Health, Cardiff University, North Wales Clinical School, Wrecsam, UK. williamsnh@cf.ac.uk



The Biopsychosocial Model aims to integrate the biological, psychological and social components of illness, but integration is difficult in practice, particularly when patients consult with medically unexplained physical symptoms or functional illness.


This Biopsychosocial Model was developed from General Systems Theory, which describes nature as a dynamic order of interacting parts and processes, from molecular to societal. Despite such conceptual progress, the biological, psychological, social and spiritual components of illness are seldom managed as an integrated whole in conventional medical practice. This is because the biomedical model can be easier to use, clinicians often have difficulty relinquishing a disease-centred approach to diagnosis, and either dismiss illness when pathology has been excluded, or explain all undifferentiated illness in terms of psychosocial factors. By contrast, traditional and complementary treatment systems describe reversible functional disturbances, and appear better at integrating the different components of illness. Conventional medicine retains the advantage of scientific method and an expanding evidence base, but needs to more effectively integrate psychosocial factors into assessment and management, notably of 'functional' illness. As an aid to integration, pathology characterised by structural change in tissues and organs is contrasted with dysfunction arising from disordered physiology or psychology that may occur independent of pathological change.


We propose a classification of illness that includes orthogonal dimensions of pathology and dysfunction to support a broadly based clinical approach to patients; adoption of which may lead to fewer inappropriate investigations and secondary care referrals and greater use of cognitive behavioural techniques, particularly when managing functional illness.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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