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The ACOEM and Environmental and Occupational Medicine

By Emily O'Brien On Aug 18, 2022
Doctor advises the patient, medical worker during the work

Environmental and occupational medicine is the prevention and management of environmental and occupational injury, illness, and disability and the promotion of health and productivity for workers, their families, and communities. Including individual patient care and population health management, it’s generally considered to be a preventative medicine subspecialty within public health. These highly-trained specialists enhance the health of workers through several avenues: clinical care, prevention, disability management, research, and education.

Trained physicians obtain certification from the American Board of Preventative Medicine. This is a field that has undergone drastic changes over the past century as the workplaces have evolved as well as federal and state regulations. The role of this type of doctor has broadened to enhance the productivity of the worker with absence management and increased emphasis on overall health, wellness and safety—not only in the workplace setting but also expanding to inside the home and the community.

What does pursuing environmental and occupational medicine mean?

For physicians, careers are both intellectually challenging and gratifying, providing the opportunity to have a major impact on disease prevention in populations. Physicians in this field have also reported the highest satisfaction with work-life balance and are least likely to experience burnout. A draw to this field includes good quality of life, regular working hours, and high salaries. In a subspecialty of preventative medicine, physicians typically work 9-5 hours without being on call. There’s often a balance of clinical and administrative work.

According to Medscape’s 2022 Physician Burnout and Depression Report, which surveyed more than 13,000 physicians across nearly 30 specialties, data shows overall burnout increasing by 5% across all specialties. Public Health and Preventive Medicine, which includes Environmental and Occupational Medicine, had the best burnout rate at 26%. This is likely due to relatively predictable hours and a centered approach to promoting the health and safety of America’s workforce. Providers in this field are routinely ranked as the happiest medical professionals.

Specialists have the opportunity to become leaders in various diverse practice settings including hospital-based clinics, private clinics, and corporate, academia, government, and military sectors.

What are environmental and occupational medicine-related issues?

Anything related to biological, chemical, physical, psychological, and safety for individuals or workplace employees. Other well-known issues include popcorn workers’ lung, SARS virus outbreak, asbestos-contaminated vermiculite (Libby, Montana), and hexavalent chromium in the water as shown in the film Erin Brockovich.

Physicians may partner with unions, benefit funds, and regional businesses to help amplify the level of health and safety among workers, which could have the positive benefit of lowering healthcare costs overall. This could entail independent medical exams, commercial driver/DOT exams, and fitness for duty or return to work evaluations. Pre-employment and pre-placement exams, drug tests, and firefighter health assessments, along with providing insight into how job tasks and work environments impact health to employers. Identifying how to implement changes to tasks and ways to reduce hazardous environmental exposures along with addressing patient concerns related to toxins, chemicals, and other everyday exposures, from mercury in fish to mold lurking in basements, are also part of the role.

Physicians act as consultative resources for patients dealing with environmental exposures, including:

  • Heavy metals such as lead, mercury, cobalt, and arsenic
  • Mold
  • Asbestos-related lung diseases
  • Chemical exposures to toxins such as solvents, pollutants, pesticides, and other hazardous substances

Practicing covers a wide range of competencies, including the ability to diagnose and treat occupational diseases and injuries and identify outcomes of environmental exposures. A large portion of the role entails the ability to determine an employee’s physical and emotional fitness for work along with educating workers on health, wellness, and sanitation practices. General knowledge of worksite operations and familiarity with toxic properties of materials, along with potential hazards and stressors of work processes is also important. A proficiency in workers’ compensation laws along with local, state, and federal regulatory requirements is also necessary.

Professionals are educated to utilize specific tools of preventative medicine to help improve the health of workers and their families and are equipped with complex return-to-work measures. This field provides a unique crossway between the clinical/scientific medical community and the business-based employer community.

American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM)

The largest organization of occupational and environmental medicine physicians and other health professions, the association provides industry professionals with education, career development, networking opportunities, representation, and other resources. Becoming a member helps enhance the stature and recognition of the specialty and strengthen the voice of the professional community in health policy debates. The organization also helps raise awareness in new areas of the prevention and treatment of illness, injury, and disability in the work environment and community.

In addition to being allies, the ACOEM can act as a conduit for continuing education. Keeping physicians up-to-date on the latest medical advances and the most pressing health issues, they help maintain the necessary skills and knowledge to advance clinical know-how and improve practice. This occurs through conference opportunities, webinars, on-demand learning, courses, and events.

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