Medicalization refers to an increasing tendency to define more conditions and behaviors as illnesses. The term is generally used critically, to illustrate a social and cultural trend toward categorizing normal problems and issues as medical conditions that require intervention by specialists or pharmaceutical treatment. When the social institution of medicine pathologizes (defines something as medically abnormal) common conditions, it creates more demand for medicine. One way sociology approaches the issues of medicalization is to study the social and economic patterns that contribute to it. In the United States the pharmaceutical industry is profit-driven. Medicalization is good for companies that sell medication. Critics of medicalization point to big increases in certain diagnoses and note how this is linked to rising pharmaceutical profits. One example is the increase in diagnoses of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in the United States. Few children were diagnosed with ADHD before a drug to treat the disorder had been introduced. They were viewed as children who had attention difficulties or behavior issues, but they were not seen as having a medical problem that needed treatment. In the 1990s the drug Ritalin became available to treat children with ADHD. After that, children's behavior was more often given a label, and drugs were prescribed. Critics of medicalization argue that once a drug was available, other solutions, such as better parenting or schools, were ignored. The increase in ADHD diagnoses is also an example of the social construction of health and health disorders. In a society in which order is a highly valued behavior for children, those who are more active are more likely to be pathologized.
An issue related to medicalization is the extent to which patients are viewed as consumers. Some researchers point to how hospitals and insurance companies in the United States function as profit-driven corporations. Embedded in a culture that sees free-market capitalism as a guiding principle, institutions that deliver health care are shaped by corporate culture more than by medical knowledge. Sociologists note various problems with viewing patients as consumers. For example, a corporation views a consumer as a means to making a profit. Health care professionals who view patients in this way are more likely to be influenced by their own economic interests rather than the best medical interests of the patient. This can lead to increased diagnoses, treatments and procedures, prescribing of medication, and hospitalization. This trend occurs for patients who have the ability to pay—usually through robust private insurance policies—while patients who cannot pay are more likely to be neglected.Demedicalization, redefining a condition or behavior as nonmedical, also occurs. For example, homosexuality was once considered a psychiatric disorder. It was demedicalized following changes in attitudes, beliefs, and knowledge about sexual orientation that occurred during the 20th century. Demedicalization is less common than medicalization. Both scientific advances that lead to new understandings and a social trend toward understanding behaviors and conditions in scientific and medical terms encourage the spread of medicalization.