What Is a Preventive Medicine Physician?

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on July 08, 2023
3 min read

A preventive medicine physician is a doctor who has experience in public health as well as clinical care. This allows them to provide insight and expertise in the prevention of injury, disease, and death.

Preventive medicine can be found in primary care clinics, government agencies, corporations, public health departments, healthcare facilities, and health insurance companies. If you’ve ever had a screening for high blood pressure or diabetes and treated it before the condition developed, then you’ve had preventive medicine.

While some physicians and specialties focus on helping  people after they’re sick, preventive medicine physicians try to help before a condition or illness develops. Their goal is to prevent health issues before there is a need to treat them.

There are many different paths in preventive medicine, so the doctor can practice in a number of areas, including public health, health policy, clinical medicine, and research. They may work in a clinic where they treat patients, they may conduct research to find new ways to prevent disease and death, or they may do a combination of both. Many primary care physicians also practice preventive medicine.

You may find preventive medicine  specialists in many settings including:

  • Occupational medicine (deals with health and safety of workers)
  • General preventive medicine and public health
  • Aerospace medicine (concerns health and safety of those in the airline or aviation industry)

There are also four subspecialties:

  • Clinical informatics
  • Medical toxicology (the study of drugs)
  • Addiction medicine (handles health of people addicted to various things)
  • Hyperbaric and undersea medicine (concerns health of people working underwater or in other pressure-changing environments)

The specific tasks performed in each specialty and subspecialty differ, but the underlying purpose remains the same: to preserve human life by preventing disease.

Preventive medicine physicians complete a four-year undergraduate degree, typically with a pre-med or science major.

Their formal medical training program typically includes:

  • Completion of four years of medical school to obtain an allopathic medical degree or osteopathic medicine degree.
  • Completion of a minimum of 15 hours of graduate-level courses in various fields to ensure a solid foundation in public health, such as:
    • Epidemiology (the study of diseases)
    • Health services administration
    • Biostatistics
    • Environmental health sciences
    • Social and behavioral sciences
  • Completion of a residency or fellowship in a program such as: public health, occupational health, preventive medicine or environmental health.

A medical license is also required in whichever state or states they are practicing.

All doctors practice preventive medicine to some degree, but some choose to specialize in it. Preventive medicine physicians can be clinical or non-clinical. Clinical physicians see patients, while non-clinical physicians do not. 

In a clinical setting, preventive medicine patients may be counseled to correct an unhealthy lifestyle or habits that may not be conducive to good health. There are no specific preventive medicine conditions, but rather health conditions to be prevented.

This might mean helping you make changes to your diet, stop smoking, or lose weight in order to prevent conditions like diabetes, obesity, and diseases related to smoking. They may give you shots or provide preventive health screenings. 

In a non-clinical setting, a preventive medicine doctor may practice epidemiology or biostatistics. They may also manage health services and administration, which could include assessing or developing health policies — directing, developing, and evaluating disease and health management programs. This area of the practice is extremely broad.

You may be referred to a preventive medicine physician if you are at risk of developing health conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and heart disease — due to either genetics or your lifestyle. They may give you advice on how to make the necessary adjustments to avoid developing chronic (long-lasting) conditions.

Your primary care doctor may also act as a preventive medicine physician and handle many of these tasks, including providing immunizations and medications to prevent conditions.