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The management of medical conditions is influenced by whether clinicians regard them as "disease" or "not a disease". The aim of the survey was to determine how medical students classify a range of conditions they might encounter in their professional lives and whether a different name for a condition would influence their decision in the categorisation of the condition as a 'disease' or 'not a disease'.
We surveyed 3 concurrent years of medical students to classify 36 candidate conditions into "disease" and "non-disease". The conditions were given a 'medical' label and a (lay) label and positioned where possible in alternate columns of the survey.
The response rate was 96% (183 of 190 students attending a lecture): 80% of students concurred on 16 conditions as "disease" (eg diabetes, tuberculosis), and 4 as "non-disease" (eg baldness, menopause, fractured skull and heat stroke). The remaining 16 conditions (with 21-79% agreement) were more contentious (especially obesity, infertility, hay fever, alcoholism, and restless leg syndrome). Three pairs of conditions had both a more, and a less, medical label: the more medical labels (myalgic encephalomyelitis, hypertension, and erectile dysfunction) were more frequently classified as 'disease' than the less medical (chronic fatigue syndrome, high blood pressure, and impotence), respectively, significantly different for the first two pairs.
Some conditions excluded from the classification of "disease" were unexpected (eg fractured skull and heat stroke). Students were mostly concordant on what conditions should be classified as "disease". They were more likely to classify synonyms as 'disease' if the label was medical. The findings indicate there is still a problem 30 years on in the concept of 'what is a disease'. Our findings suggest that we should be addressing such concepts to medical students.