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What Is Preventive Medicine? A Look at What These Proactive Providers Do

6 min read / Medical Practice


Healthcare is sometimes perceived as only taking a responsive action to treat an illness, disease, or injury. While treatment is a major part of medicine, there are also physicians who place a focus on helping prevent illness and disease.

Preventive medicine is when these physicians work together for both treatment and prevention. There are many medical subspecialties or areas of practice that focus narrowly on a single age group, ailment, or body part, but preventive medicine doesn’t work within these same boundaries, making it an extremely broad field.

So, what is preventive medicine exactly, and why is it so important? We’re exploring the details of this dynamic medical specialty and learn how its impact reaches not just individual patients but also communities and populations at large.

What is preventive medicine?

The purpose of preventive medicine (sometimes referred to as preventative medicine) is exactly as the name suggests: it aims to prevent a disease or illness before it happens.

The ideology behind preventive medicine focuses on protecting, promoting, and maintaining health and well-being. Practitioners in this realm aim to avert disease, disability, and death on an individual basis, as well as on a large scale in communities and populations.

The concept of preventative medicine is promoted by all physicians, though some choose to specialize in it. Doctors in this specialty use biostatistics and epidemiology, as well as a mix of medical, social, economic, and behavioral sciences. They may evaluate health services or manage healthcare organizations, and they also study the cause of disease and injury within specific population segments.

This practice is an interdisciplinary branch of medicine that focuses on the whole patient, including the many factors that influence their health. As such, preventive medicine holds a broad scope, encompassing elements of socioeconomics, public policy, health equity, and the disparities found in certain communities and populations.

Primary care physician speaking with patient

Why is preventive medicine important?

Outside of deaths related to COVID-19 complications, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists the five leading causes of death in the US as heart disease, cancer, unintentional injuries, stroke, and chronic lower respiratory diseases. In fact, chronic diseases like these account for seven out of ten deaths in the US.

This makes preventive medicine more important in identifying health issues that can cause premature death. Screening and detection have become critical components of healthcare, but those aren’t the only aspects of preventive medicine that can have a noticeable impact. Healthy habits like eating well, exercising, and avoiding tobacco use are just as critical.

Practicing preventative medicine can also lower costs, as 75 percent of the country’s annual health spending goes toward chronic and largely preventable diseases, the CDC notes. Heart disease and stroke, for example, are responsible for one-third of deaths in the US each year. This costs the healthcare system approximately $216 billion annually while also resulting in $147 billion in lost workplace productivity.

Diabetes is another prominent example. More than 34.2 million Americans live with diabetes, and another 88 million individuals have been diagnosed with a condition called prediabetes. This can lead to serious complications, including heart disease, kidney failure, and even blindness. Recent data indicates that the disease results in an annual deficit of around $327 billion in medical costs and lost productivity.

Finally, there is an important public health component in the field of preventive medicine. Despite the knowledge that preventive care reduces the risk of diseases, disabilities, and death, there are a variety of barriers that preclude community members from receiving this pivotal care. In addition to medical practitioners who provide essential preventive care, there’s a need for professionals who focus on law and policy changes that can help more people gain access to these critical services.


Types of preventive medicine

Preventive medicine can be practiced in both clinical and non-clinical settings. Clinical preventive medicine physicians work directly with patients. They may provide counseling for unhealthy habits, run preventive health screenings, and administer immunizations. These practitioners may work with patients who would benefit from lifestyle changes, often encountering cases involving diabetes, smoking, or obesity.

Non-clinical preventative medicine physicians don’t work as closely with individual patients. This branch of medicine includes health policy, epidemiology, and an increased focus on the social and behavioral influences on a person’s health. It’s not uncommon for preventive medicine physicians to work both in the clinical and non-clinical branches of the field.

Primary care physician educating patient

There are also a number of subspecialty opportunities within preventive medicine. Consider the following three examples:

1. Aerospace medicine

Aerospace medicine pertains to the health and safety of persons within air and space vehicles. The passengers and workers aboard these contraptions face their share of environmental hazards, as well as physical and psychological stressors.

Physicians in aerospace medicine work to promote the health, safety, and wellness of individuals working or traveling in air and space environments. They also help in preventing injuries from many environmental factors, including microgravity, radiation exposure, G-forces, emergency ejection injuries, and hypoxic conditions.

2. Occupational medicine

Occupational medicine seeks to reduce injury, disability, and death in workers across industries. Physicians specializing in occupational medicine examine the physical, chemical, biological, and social environments of the workplace and their impact on the health of employees.

These practitioners help employers identify health and safety risks to employees and work to cut down on occupational hazards that could result in injury or death. They may also make policy recommendations to promote safe work environments, diagnose occupational diseases and injuries, and research work-related health issues.

3. Public health

Working in the public health realm, preventive medicine physicians promote health and well-being on a larger scale. These practitioners work with communities and certain segments of the population, combining prevention-based clinical knowledge with population-based public health.

Public health physicians analyze data on public health problems and research the causes behind them. They also develop strategies to tackle health issues in the public, which can lead to new programs promoting overall health and preventing the spread of disease. These physicians also consult with other officials in the field to develop legislation benefitting the health of entire communities.

Stay a step ahead with preventative medicine

Now that you know a bit more about what preventive medicine is and how these physicians benefit their communities in big and small ways, it’s clear this is an important field that helps patient populations thwart illness and keep health costs down.

While all doctors incorporate some degree of preventative medicine into their practice, primary care physicians are uniquely positioned to help their patients stay healthy and avoid preventable illnesses. Learn more about the important role these doctors play in our article “What Does a Primary Care Physician Do? Exploring This High-Demand Medical Career.”


*This article was originally published in 2018 and has since been updated.


August 23, 2022