What Are the Different Levels of Preventive Medicine?

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  • Written By: R. Bargar
  • Edited By: Jessica Seminara
  • Last Modified Date: 15 October 2019
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Preventive medicine attempts to delay progress or stop the onset of disease, rather than focusing solely on the treatment of an existing disease. The classification system for preventive medicine has four levels and an additional level for the care of unborn children. Specific levels of preventive medicine are designated depending on the absence or presence of illness and disease. The levels are named numerically, with primary, secondary, tertiary and quaternary levels in addition to the primal level for care of the developing fetus. Although much of preventive care falls in the public health realm, the goal of this type of care is for individuals and medical practitioners to put into practice suggested preventive strategies.

The primary level of preventive care is focused on preventing diseases in populations by getting rid of the causes or by increasing people’s resistance to disease. At this stage, illness and disease are not present. Using data collected by epidemiologists helps public health care professionals set goals for the primary level of preventive care. This may include anti-smoking campaigns and laws, seat belt and safety regulations, and education about lifestyle choices. Broad public programs to help keep the food and water supply safe are other facets of this level.


During the secondary level of preventive care, a disease is diagnosed at an early stage, usually before the person experiences obvious illness. This stage uses diagnostic testing to help uncover disease so it can be treated while still in initial development. Many of the strategies used in level one are still used during this level in addition to specific treatments. Using both treatment and primary strategies might help delay the onset of more serious disease.

By the time there are obvious symptoms of disease present, preventive medicine has entered the tertiary level of care. Again, primary stage strategies are generally still in place, but the focus has changed from prevention of disease to preventing further progress and complications from an illness. Treatments are used to reduce the risk of disability or death. Along with treatment, various forms of rehabilitation are used during this stage. Throughout all stages, the role of the health care system is to optimize health while minimizing disease and suffering.

The primary goal of quaternary prevention is to protect people from unnecessary and excessive medical intervention. This is not a separate preventive medicine level. Rather, it is suggested this concept of moderation be integrated at all levels of preventive care. Patients in the health care system may be at risk for over intervention with resulting excessive diagnostic testing and medical intervention. An excess of medical treatment might lead to a loss of quality of life without corresponding additional health benefits.

A separate category exists for the preventive care of the unborn child. This is commonly called primal prevention. It involves adequate prenatal care along with providing support for the parents. This includes education for the parents detailing aspects of health that affect the child before, during and after pregnancy. Primal prevention also includes adequate family leave so both parents can care for the newborn.


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