While many occupations fall under the umbrella of public health, epidemiology is one of the more scientific public health professions. Epidemiology is the scientific method used to study diseases and other health events in specific populations, and the application of this method to reduce the impact of health problems.
An epidemiologist is someone who studies the causes, distribution of, and appropriate countermeasures for health-related issues or events. Individuals interested in a public health career should learn more about what an epidemiologist does and the educational requirements for the career.
What Is an Epidemiologist?
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 population 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, epidemiologists work to discover the details about an event’s origination.
The practice of epidemiology in public health involves the following six major tasks:
- Public health surveillance– This involves the collection, analysis, interpretation and dissemination of data relating to a specific public health event.
- Field investigation– This reflects 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– This involves 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, span age ranges and more. This requires 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.
While the responsibilities of epidemiologists may vary depending on their employer, in general, organizations expect them to perform 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 epidemiologists choose to specialize in include the following areas:
- Infectious diseases
- Chronic diseases
- Maternal and child health
- Public health preparedness and emergency response
- Environmental health
- Occupational health
- Oral health
- Substance abuse
- Mental health
Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that as of May 2020, the median annual wage for epidemiologists was $74,560, with those in the top 10th percentile earning more than $126,040. Salary ranges vary based on factors such as experience, geographical region and the type of employer. For example, BLS data shows epidemiologists working for scientific research and development services reported earning a median annual salary of $99,020 in 2020, while those employed by colleges, universities and professional schools reported a median annual salary of $67,700. Additionally, the BLS reports the annual mean salary for epidemiologists in Washington state as $113,900, while the annual mean for those employed in Texas was $71,720.
Job outlook in the field is favorable, with the BLS projecting overall employment of epidemiologists to grow 30% between 2020 and 2030, much faster than what’s projected for the job market as a whole.
Many epidemiologists work for government agencies and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization, National Institutes of Health and the United Nations Children’s Fund. They 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. These employers 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
Most positions for epidemiologists require a master’s degree in a related field. Completing an advanced degree such as a Master of Public Health (MPH) is a key step toward pursuing a career in epidemiology.
University of Nevada, Reno’s online Master of Public Health in Public Health Practice covers a variety of topics, such as biostatistics, health policy, leadership in health, environmental health, and epidemiology. Upon completion of the program, graduates often pursue positions at educational institutions, health care facilities, governmental institutions and managed care centers.
Are you ready to take the next step toward a career as an epidemiologist? Discover how completing an online Master of Public Health in Public Health Practice from University of Nevada, Reno can prepare you for the future.