Intended for healthcare professionals

Clinical Review

In search of “non-disease”

BMJ 2002; 324 doi: (Published 13 April 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;324:883
  1. Richard Smith, editor
  1. BMJ, BMA House, London WC1H 9JR

    The BMJ recently ran a vote on to identify the “top 10 non-diseases.”1 Some critics thought it an absurd exercise,2 but our primary aim was to illustrate the slipperiness of the notion of disease. We wanted to prompt a debate on what is and what is not a disease and draw attention to the increasing tendency to classify people's problems as diseases.

    Results of survey in 1979 in which a range of subjects (non-medical academics, secondary school students, medical academics, and general practitioners) were asked which of 38 conditions they considered to be diseases3

    In 1979 the BMJ published a study that did something similar.3 Non-medical academics, medical academics, general practitioners, and secondary school students were invited to say whether 38 terms did or did not refer to a disease. Almost 100% thought that malaria and tuberculosis were diseases, but less than 20% thought the following to be diseases: lead poisoning, carbon monoxide poisoning, senility, hangover, fractured skull, heatstroke, tennis elbow, colour blindness, malnutrition, barbiturate overdose, drowning, or starvation (figure). People were split 50:50 over whether hypertension, acne vulgaris, or gall stones were diseases. The doctors were more likely to view the terms as referring to diseases. The authors of this study included Guy Scadding, who spent much of his life spelling out to doctors that no general agreement exists on how to define a disease.

    Summary points

    The BMJ conducted a survey on the web to identify “non-diseases”—and found almost 200

    The notion of “disease” is a slippery one and the concept of non-disease is therefore similarly blurred

    Health is equally impossible to define

    To have your condition labelled as a disease may bring considerable benefit—both material (financial) and emotional

    However, the diagnosis of a disease may also create problems—you may be denied insurance, a mortgage, …

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