About 30 years on, the definition of medicalization is more complicated, if for no other reason than because the term is so widely used. Many contemporary critics position pharmaceutical companies in the space once held by doctors as the supposed catalysts of social transformation. Titles such as the The making of a disease or Sex, drugs, and marketing critique the pharmaceutical industry for shunting everyday problems into the domain of professional biomedicine. At the same time, to suggest that society simply reject drugs or drug companies in much the same ways some have suggested it "liberate" itself from the medical system is implausible. The same drugs that treat deviances from societal norms also help many people live their lives. Even scholars who critique the societal implications of brand-name drugs generally remain open to these drugs' curative effects — a far cry from earlier calls for a revolution against the biomedical establishment.
The physician's role in this present-day notion of medicalization is similarly complex. On one hand, the doctor remains an authority figure who prescribes pharmaceuticals to patients. Whereas on the other, ubiquitous consumer-directed advertisements instruct patients to ask for particular drugs by name, thereby creating a conversation between consumer and drug company that threatens to cut the doctor out of the loop. The role of patients in this economy has also changed. Once regarded as passive victims of medicalization, patients can now occupy active positions as advocates, consumers, or even agents of change.
The dramatic growth in the number of categories of mental illness as explained in the various versions of the DSM (diagnostic and statistical manual of mental illness) is a primary example. For instance, the current (DSM-IV) version, lists impotence, premature ejaculation, jet lag, and caffeine intoxication as mental illnesses. Further, a "patina of medical importance" is given to the most commonly diagnosed personality disorder (309.9 Personality Disorder not Otherwise Specified.)
In the process of medicalization, the purview of medicine extends to formerly non-medical areas of life, by identifying formerly non-medical conditions such as social deviance and aging as medical problems. This concept was named by Irving K. Zola. The sociologist Peter Conrad, among others, has written widely about the process of medicalization.
The concept can be defined in several ways. Usually social scientists talk about medicalization considering the status of medicine: doctors control people. In a narrower sense medicalization means that human decisions (both on a personal and a common level) increasingly rest on health consciousness.
The antithesis of medicalization is the process of paramedicalization, where alternative therapies and theories of health, wellness and disease are adopted. Even if medicalization and paramedicalization are contradictory, they also feed each other: they both ensure that the questions of health and illness stay in sharp focus.
Many issues have been medicalized and assigned disease terms in the 18th century (e.g. alcoholism, obesity, attention deficit disorder) while some behaviors previously considered medical problems have been de-medicalized (e.g., homosexuality, masturbation).
In June 2005, an interdisciplinary group of scholars gathered in New York City, USA to discuss the clinical, philosophical, and political implications of medicalization. The group's central question was whether, in the industrialized world, medicalization remains a viable notion in an age dominated by complex and often contradictory interactions between medicine, pharmaceutical companies, and culture at large. Participants represented a variety of disciplines, including psychiatry, sociology, anthropology, history, critical race theory, and gender studies. As such, topics ranged from the economics of medicalization to the creation and perpetuation of medicalized forms of identity and citizenship.