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Overview of Preventive Care

by James T. Pacala, MD, MS

Traditional medical care focuses on improving health by identifying and treating health problems that have already produced symptoms or complications. In contrast, preventive medical care focuses on preventing health problems from occurring. Preventive care also focuses on diagnosing problems before symptoms or complications arise, when the chances of recovery are greatest. When done well, prevention improves overall health and reduces health care costs.

The general goal of prevention is to reduce a person’s likelihood of becoming ill or disabled or of dying prematurely. Preventive medical care is not a case of “one size fits all.” Specific goals are developed by and for each person. Specific goals depend heavily on a person’s risk profile, that is, the person’s risk of developing a disease based on such factors as age, sex, genetic background, lifestyle, and physical and social environment. Factors that increase risk are called risk factors.

Examples of Risk Factors for Health Problems


Risk Factors


Eating an unbalanced, unhealthy diet


Family predisposition to specific disease, such as heart disease, colon cancer, breast cancer, cervical cancer, diabetes, mental health disorders, and substance abuse

Mental health

Stressful situations such as

  • A new job

  • Difficulty at work

  • Death of a loved one

  • Not getting sufficient sleep

  • Getting married or divorced

Physical activity

Sedentary lifestyle (not getting enough exercise)

Physical environment

Failure to maintain a safe environment, which would include the following:

  • For all people: Failing to keep firearms secured, not using bicycle helmets and seat belts, not having working smoke detectors and fire extinguishers in the home, and not having heating systems and fireplaces inspected and cleaned periodically

  • For children: Not using child safety seats, bicycle helmets, flame-retardant sleepwear, and window and chair guards; not assessing the home for leaded paint and removing if applicable; and not safely storing drugs and toxic substances

  • For older adults: Not removing or correcting hazards that can cause falls (such as loose throw rugs and dim lighting)

Race and sex

Men: Higher risk of heart attack than women

Black men: Higher risk of high blood pressure than white men

Social environment

Neighborhood violence

Family violence

High-risk sexual behavior (such as having several partners or not using condoms)

Difficulty getting along with others

Substance use

Smoking cigarettes, cigars, or pipes

Chewing tobacco

Using illegal drugs

Misusing alcohol or prescription drugs


Not having received all recommended vaccinations


Weight that is above what is recommended for height and sex, particularly by 20% or more

Work environment

Working with potential toxins (for example, asbestos or ionizing radiation), machinery, power tools, farm equipment, and other possibly dangerous objects

Some risk factors are beyond a person’s control, such as age, sex, and family history. Other risk factors, such as a person’s lifestyle and physical and social environment, can be altered, potentially decreasing risk of developing disorders. In addition, risk can be reduced through good medical care.

Most of the medical care that infants (see Care of Newborns and Infants), older children (see Preventive Health Care Visits in Children), and adolescents (see Preventive Health Care Visits in Adolescents) receive (specifically well-child care) is aimed at recognizing and preventing problems. For example, examination focuses on detecting early signs of developing problems. Most vaccinations are given during childhood. Health care practitioners counsel parents about preventing accidents and injuries in children and adolescents.

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