Reflections on Fifty Years of Medical Sociology

In a new era of health care in the U.S., medical sociologists will continue to examine inequalities in access to care and explore social causes of illness.

Since 1959, the Journal of Health and Social Behavior (JHSB) has pursued research into the social dimensions of health. JHSB presents a supplemental issue that reviews 50 years of contributions to sociological research of health and illness.

The 11 articles in this supplement cover the following topics: historical changes to the patient’s role within the health care system; the life-cycle of bioethical principles; the link between low socioeconomic status and poor health; negative mental health consequences of stress; the impact of social relationships on health; race and health; illness, its definition and cultural meaning; inequality in distribution of health services; how health care reform will utilize new technologies; and, the irrationality of the health system.

When JHSB released its first issue, Americans spent far less on health care; doctors were the central authority for diagnosing and treating patients; and there were few treatments for symptoms related to stroke, cancer or heart disease.

Today, patients navigate a complex health care system; physicians practice within a network of providers; medications allow people to manage chronic symptoms over the long-term; and new technologies abound.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 will insure millions of Americans. Legislation alone, however, will not offset the disadvantages of poverty. Disease and illness continue to disproportionately threaten racial and ethnic minorities. In reflecting on the last half-century, JHSB calls on medical sociologists to help implement and evaluate health care reform, so that more Americans have equal access to high quality, cost-effective treatment.