Medicine

How to Become a Preventive Medicine Specialist

How to Become a Preventive Medicine Specialist
Rather than mitigating the results of bad behavior, preventive medicine specialists teach people to avoid those behaviors and practice better ones. As a result, they will enable patients to lead long, healthy lives. Image from Unsplash
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Mary Kearl October 29, 2019

There's a branch of medicine focused on keeping people well rather than making them better when they're sick or injured. That branch—preventative medicine—encompasses a broad range of practices impacting individual and community health.

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The use of remedies to treat disease and injuries is called allopathic medicine, and it’s the type of medicine most people think of when they think of ‘the doctor.’ Allopathy is the science of making bad things go away or at least bother us less.

There is another type of medicine, one that focuses on keeping illness from happening to begin with. This type of medicine, called preventive medicine, teaches patients to take better care of themselves to reduce the likelihood they will eventually need allopathic remedies. It also engages with public health policy to promote practices that benefit society at large.

Obviously, we need both types of medicine: no amount of prevention can eliminate accidents, and no amount of allopathy can cure someone whose poor life choices have ruined their health. But the case can be made that the need for preventive medicine specialists is greater. Almost everyone knows of a GP or a clinic, or an emergency room they can visit when they have an urgent medical issue. But does everyone have a doctor who can tell them how to eat better? Reduce stress? Avoid behaviors that promote addiction? And who couldn’t use a doctor like that?

Maybe you could be that doctor. This guide on how to become a preventive medicine specialist covers:

  • The pros and cons of becoming a preventive medicine specialist
  • Kinds of preventive medicine specialist careers
  • Educational commitment to become a preventive medicine specialist
  • Licensure and accreditation for becoming a preventive medicine specialist
  • Further accreditation or education for preventive medicine specialists
  • Typical advancement path for preventive medicine specialists
  • Resources for becoming a preventive medicine specialist

The pros and cons of becoming a preventive medicine specialist

Pros of becoming a preventive medicine specialist

  • Job opportunities: The U.S. is expected to experience a deficit of 121,900 physicians by 2032. If you can get through medical school—and that’s a big if, as med school is perhaps the most challenging experience in academia—you will have a job waiting for you when you’re done.
  • Career versatility: As Daniel Blumenthal, MD, a preventive healthcare provider, described in a profile on the American Medical Association website, working in the field has enabled him to explore teaching, research, and working for local, national, and global public health organizations.
  • The potential to save more lives: Rather than mitigating the results of bad behavior, your practice can teach people to avoid those behaviors and practice better ones. As a result, you will enable your patients to lead long, healthy lives.
  • Generous compensation: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average pay of physicians is $208,000 per year, or $100 per hour. Job search website Neuvoo reports that preventive medicine physicians earn $183,300 annually, on average.

Cons of becoming a preventive medicine specialist

  • Education requirements: You can’t practice on your own until you’ve completed medical school and your residency, a process that can take six to ten years.
  • Student loan debt: In 2018, the nation’s medical students graduated with a median debt of $200,000.
  • Work stress: Research indicates as many as 54 percent of doctors experience burnout on the job. The resulting decrease in productivity (from reduced hours or even quitting the profession) costs the U.S. healthcare system as much as $4.6 billion annually.

Kinds of preventive medicine specialist careers

According to the American College of Preventive Medicine (ACPM), there are two types of licensed preventive medicine specialists:

  • Medical doctors (MDs), which many people assume is the only type of doctor in America
  • Doctors of osteopathy (DOs), a small but growing group of doctors (114,425 in 2018, according to the American Osteopathic Association) that focuses on preventing illnesses as much on treatment.

Both specialists are experts in the areas of:

  • Biostatistics
  • Epidemiology
  • Health services planning and evaluation
  • Management of healthcare organizations
  • Research
  • Patient care

Preventive medicine specialties

The ACPM identifies three main areas of specialization for preventive medicine physicians:

  • Public health and general preventive medicine
  • Occupational medicine
  • Aerospace medicine

Within these specialties, there are also subspecialties (more on that later). It’s like a Russian nesting doll of medicine.

Public health and general preventive medicine

From flu shot drives to public health education campaigns, these workers make sure populations avert epidemics and other outbreaks. Public health specialists serve individual patients all the way up to government agencies. Their employers include:

  • Primary care practices
  • Large corporations
  • Public health organizations
  • Government agencies

Occupational medicine

Every time you’ve experienced safe working conditions, you can thank occupational medicine specialists. These doctors focus on the health and well-being of employees by examining all the elements that can potentially impact worker health.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has an occupational medicine and nursing arm responsible for creating rules and regulations for the national workforce.

Aerospace medicine

You might think there’s no need for a branch of medicine focused specifically on the health of flight crews, passengers, and astronauts. Think again. The unique aspects of air travel—the environment, the constant time zone changes, exposure to radiation—create medical conditions that require specialized attention. Many aerospace medical specialists (sometimes called aviation specialists or flight specialists) work for the military.

Types of preventive medicine subspecialties

Doctors may also choose to become certified in a subspecialty. The American Board of Preventive Medicine identifies four subspecializations:

  • Addiction medicine: This field focuses on preventing, evaluating, diagnosing, and treating people with substance abuse disorders related to alcohol, prescription medicines, and more.
  • Clinical informatics: These specialists look to improve information and communication systems to drive better health outcomes for patients and communities—think MD meets IT.
  • Medical toxicology: These preventive medicine experts evaluate and treat injuries and illnesses that result from exposure to poisons and venoms
  • Undersea and hyperbaric medicine: Unprotected exposure to high pressure—which can occur when something goes wrong for deep-sea divers or in a hyperbaric chamber—is extremely hazardous. Unfortunately, it occurs frequently enough to demand its own medical subspecialty.

Educational commitment to become a preventive medicine specialist

Though both MDs and DOs attend four-year programs, there are some key differences between the two approaches. MD programs tend to focus on diagnosis and treatment of specific conditions, applying traditional remedy-based approaches. DO programs focus more on preventative practices as well as on holistic approaches to disease and injury prevention. Admission to MD programs tends to be more competitive.

Regardless of which program you pick (or get accepted to), plan on an educational commitment of roughly 11 to 15 years, according to the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California – Los Angeles. This includes:

  • An undergraduate degree: four years
  • DO/MD program: four years
  • Residency: three to seven years

There are 71 accredited preventive medicine programs in the US approved by the Preventive Medicine Residency Review Committee of the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME).

Programs are offered by:

  • Med schools
  • Public health schools
  • State and local health departments
  • Federal government agencies

To be accepted, applicants must have first completed a minimum of 12 months in an ACGME-accredited residency program.

Licensure and accreditation for becoming a preventive medicine specialist

To get licensed, both MDs and DOs must earn state licensing and pass state board exams. DOs must also pass the Comprehensive Medical Licensing Examination(COMLEX), while MDs must pass the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE). DOs may take the USMLE if they wish.

Further accreditation or education for preventive medicine specialists

According to the American Board of Preventive Medicine, the general requirements for becoming a public health and general preventive medicine specialist include:

  • Complete medical school
  • Obtain a valid medical license
  • Complete graduate coursework with up to 15 hours in biostatistics, epidemiology, social and behavioral sciences, health services administration, and environmental health sciences

Additional specialization requirements include one of the following:

  • Complementary training program: Additional training is required for physicians who are making a mid-career shift into the specialty.
  • Specialty program training: For those who are already certified in one specialty (general preventive, aerospace, or occupational), this option allows them to obtain an additional specialty

Typical advancement path for preventive medicine specialists

Becoming a preventive medical professional opens a variety of career opportunities in both medical practice and public health.

  • Many preventive medicine specialists work in private or public clinics to implement immunization and screening programs, and to educate patients on disease prevention and health promotion.
  • Others find positions in public health agencies and organizations such as the Center for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
  • If your goal is to educate the public health specialists of tomorrow, academia will also be an option.

Resources for becoming a preventive medicine specialist

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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