While there are many occupations that fall under the public health umbrella, epidemiology is one of the more scientific, laboratory-based public health professions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes epidemiology as, “the study of the distribution and determinants of health-related states or events in specified populations, and the application of this study to the control of health problems.” Epidemiologists study the causes, distribution and appropriate countermeasures for health-related issues or events.
What does an epidemiologist do?
The early days of epidemiology focused on communicable disease epidemics, but in the 20th century, the health issues studied by epidemiologists expanded to include endemic communicable diseases, non-communicable infectious diseases, chronic diseases, injuries, birth defects, maternal-child health, occupational health and environmental health. Today epidemiologists study an even greater array of public health issues or events that affect a population’s well-being.
Epidemiologists provide research-backed data to a variety of public health professionals so they can make informed decisions regarding policy, implementation and evaluation of ongoing events. When conducting research about public health events, they work to discover the details about the event’s origination.
The practice of epidemiology in public health involves the following six major tasks:
Public health surveillance – collection, analysis, interpretation and dissemination of data relating to a specific public health event
Field investigation – a multidisciplinary coordinated effort to characterize the extent of an epidemic, find undiagnosed community members, identify causality, determine risk factors, or establish a source or vehicle of infection that can be controlled or eliminated. Every investigation is unique and can occasionally require boots on the ground.
Analytic studies – These studies are used to prove or disprove the hypotheses generated from surveillance and field investigations.
Evaluation – the process of determining, as systematically and objectively as possible, the relevance, effectiveness, efficiency and impact of activities concerning specific public health events.
Linkages – Public health events happen everywhere. They can cross geographical and jurisdictional lines, bridge neighboring communities and span age ranges requiring epidemiologists to work in combination with local, state or federal levels of government, academic institutions, clinical facilities or public health professionals from the private sector.
Policy development – Epidemiologists working in public health can be called on to provide guidance, testimony or recommendations regarding public health strategies, regulations and health care policy.
Primary responsibilities of an epidemiologist
While the duties of epidemiologists may vary depending on their employer, in general, organizations expect them to do the following:
- Collect and analyze data to find the origin of known or unknown pathogens via observation-based study, including interviews, surveys, blood and other bodily fluid samples.
- Relay these findings to other medical professionals, including primary care physicians, typically in a hospital or laboratory setting.
- Seek ways to improve public health outcomes among both large and small groups.
- Develop public health awareness programs that teach individuals how to be proactive against wellness threats.
- Direct and supervise other medical personnel involved in observation-based examination and data collection.
Due to the broad spectrum of issues facing public health professionals and epidemiologists, many choose to focus their efforts toward a single public health issue. Common issues epidemiologist choose to specialize in include:
- Infectious diseases
- Chronic diseases
- Maternal and child health
- Public health preparedness and emergency response
- Environmental health
- Occupational health
- Oral health
- Substance abuse
- Mental health
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), as of May 2016 the median salary for an epidemiologist was $70,820, with 9% growth predicted nationwide from 2016 to 2026. Government agencies account for more than 50% of epidemiology positions in the U.S., while the health care and social service industries cover another 20%. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization, National Institutes of Health and the United Nations Children’s Fund are perhaps the most prominent organizations employing epidemiologists.
Epidemiologists can also work in the private sector, employed by pharmaceutical companies, health insurers, laboratories, social science institutions and private universities.
Epidemiologists’ jobs responsibilities vary based on the sectors in which they’re employed, which can include:
- Colleges and universities
- Statistical organizations
- Survey research firms
- Community health groups
- Nonprofit foundations
- Federal agencies
- State health agencies
- Humanitarian and disaster relief organizations
- Veterinary hospitals and clinics
- Nursing homes and elderly care facilities
Earning your online MPH
The BLS states that a master’s degree is required to work as an epidemiologist. While several master’s degrees can qualify you to work as an epidemiologist, pursuing a Master of Public Health degree specializing in Epidemiology is a common path to employment in this field. Additionally, most employers require that you earn your master’s degree from an accredited institution, an accredited degree guarantees the curriculum meets industry standards and prepares you to practice at the required level.
If you’re ready to conduct, analyze and present valuable data about public health events, the University of Nevada, Reno’s Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH) accredited online MPH degree can prepare you to advance your career in the field of epidemiology.
At the University of Nevada, Reno you may study topics including the following:
- The basic terminology and definitions of epidemiology
- The key sources of data for epidemiologic purposes
- The principles and limitations of public health screening programs
- The identification of public health problem in terms of magnitude, person, time, and place
- The importance of epidemiology for informing scientific, ethical, economic and political discussion of public health issues
- The process of calculating and interpreting basic epidemiology measures
- The purposes, strengths, and weaknesses of various study designs
- The strengths and limitations of epidemiologic reports