The role of a preventive medicine specialist

September 9, 2014

Article by Global Pre-Meds
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Gap Medics student Angela and her mentor in the pediatric department of Tosamaganga HospitalWhen you think of becoming a doctor, treating illness and injury may first come to mind. After all, most people go to the doctor when they do not feel well; however, there is a specialty that focuses on preventing illness and injury instead of treating it. Preventive medicine specialists are doctors who develop ways to prevent disease and keep people from becoming ill or getting injured.  

Responsibilities of a preventive medicine specialist

Preventive medicine specialists focus on the health of communities, specific populations and individuals. Doctors in this specialty research, develop and implement ways to prevent disease, decrease disability and maintain health. Some typical duties may include teaching medical staff ways to reduce the spread of infection, directing public health programs and determining the causes of disease. They may also evaluate the effectiveness of treatments for various diseases. Doctors may provide information to the public or other medical professionals on potential health hazards and ways to reduce the risk.

Where do preventive medicine specialists work?

Preventive medicine specialists work in a variety of settings. Although some preventive medicine doctors may work in hospitals, a large number work in other types of settings, such as government agencies, which conduct disease surveillance or health preventive programs. They may also work for universities and pharmaceutical companies. Some preventive medicine specialists focus on aerospace medicine, which involves developing ways to maintain the health and safety of aeronauts and pilots. Doctors may also choose to specialize in occupational medicine, which involves developing ways to keep employees healthy and safe while on the job.


Similar to all types of doctors, physical medicine specialists complete a bachelor’s degree before applying to medical school. Four years of medical school is the next step. Although the work of a preventive medicine doctor is somewhat different than other types of physicians, they still must complete the same clinical rotations during medical school. For example, rotations in internal medicine, surgery and psychiatry are required.

After graduating from medical school, doctors can take a few different paths to becoming preventive medicine specialists. A doctor can choose to do a residency in a specialty, such as internal medicine, and then complete a two-year preventive medicine residency. An additional path involves going directly from medical school to a three-year preventive medicine residency. After completing the residency requirements, doctors may take the exam administered by the American Board of Preventative Medicine in order to become board certified.

Additional subspecialties are available to those interested in preventive medicine. Subspecialties include clinical informatics, medical toxicology and hyperbaric medicine.

Advantages and disadvantages

Working in preventive medicine allows doctors a chance to work outside the traditional hospital setting, which some may see as an advantage. It also largely eliminates the need to be on call and work overnight hours. For people who enjoy research, preventive medicine may be an excellent choice.

On the downside, doctors who thrive on excitement and a fast-paced working environment may not find preventive medicine provides them with the adrenaline rush other types of medicine do.


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Gap Medics provides year-round hospital work experience for people aged 16 and over. Our shadowing placements offer a unique insight into the work of doctors, nurses, midwives and dentists – helping students to focus their career aspirations before embarking upon medical training.