The best medical specialty you’ve never heard of

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The most common response when I introduce myself as a preventive medicine resident is an interjection, “You mean family medicine?” I have come to realize that the majority of the healthcare field has never heard of preventive medicine as a unique medical specialty. It’s a shame, because preventive medicine is truly the best medical specialty you’ve never heard of.

Preventive medicine practices at the intersection of public health and clinical medicine — we are population doctors. Sure, we love vaccines as much as the next physician, but we do so much more than give flu shots. We provide clinical care, inform policies, make recommendations, conduct epidemiologic research, educate students and professionals, contribute to emergency preparedness, and partner with communities across the world.

For those who are not convinced that it is a “real” specialty, I will add that preventive medicine has over 70 ACGME-accredited residency programs across the country and is recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties. There are three specialty areas, which include aerospace medicine, occupational medicine, and public health and general preventive medicine. Similar to many other specialties, in order to train in preventive medicine, you must complete at least one year of an accredited residency program prior to entrance.

After we finish residency, you may see us at the CDC leading an epidemic response team, WHO working on policies to address maternal mortality, DOD preparing our soldiers to avoid illness during deployment, or AHRQ designing ways to disseminate and implement the latest patient safety research. We may be leading your local health department, community health center, or travel medicine clinic. For some of us, our life passion is to help your patients quit smoking, eat healthier, exercise more, sleep better, stress less, and maintain wellness.

As a national representative for preventive medicine within a leading medical education organization, it has been concerning to me that many medical students are never exposed to the field. Even when students do come across the preventive medicine specialty, career counselors may not be well-equipped to answer questions. As in my past experience, career counselors may have never even heard of preventive medicine.

Now, I admit I might be biased given that I am a current preventive medicine resident. However, in an era where there is a large societal and economic burden from preventable chronic diseases, and wellness is an increasingly complex goal to attain, we need more specialists who have a deep understanding of systems, population health, and clinical medicine.

Medical professionals can help fill this gap by exposing medical students to the field and by considering additional training in the realm of preventive medicine. Medical professionals can also make our jobs easier by reporting unusual or unexpected disease patterns and by partnering with us for research, quality improvement, and system redesign initiatives.

I can no longer say that preventive medicine is the best field you’ve never heard of. However, hopefully, some of you will now join me in saying that preventive medicine is one of the best fields you have heard of!

Jennifer Chevinsky is a preventive medicine resident.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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