What is Epidemiology?

EpidemiologyWhat is epidemiology? In the most simple terms, epidemiology is the science of public health. An epidemiologist is a health detective who examines both the causes and effects of medical conditions. Compare an epidemiologist to an occupation more familiar to most people, a medical physician. A physician examines a person. An epidemiologist examines populations. A physician determines an individual's health problem. An epidemiologist determines what factors may have contributed to that problem and how it could be prevented in the future.


According to US News and World Report, Epidemiologists are detectives who need skills in statistics, interviewing, biology, logic and psychology. Also, they must have computer skills. Epidemiology is about finding patterns and computers can find patterns in large chunks of raw data much more quickly than a person can. Although nothing can replace human curiosity, creativity, and common sense to assist in making connections and developing hypotheses. Epidemiologists also need communication skills, including writing skills to report their findings to the medical community, policy makers, and the general public.


Since epidemiologists are detectives, they must ask questions and the questions really do not vary:

  • How many? What number of people are affected by this health problem?
  • Where? Do the subjects have anything geographically in common?
  • Why? Can factors be found in common between subjects that could answer what the cause of the health problem is?
  • How? How is the problem contracted? Is it airborne? Congenital? Food-borne? Spread by contact?
  • Prevention and control Can a policy be recommended for avoiding this health problem in the future?


According to the CDC, the epidemiologist looks for patterns and they usually fall into three categories. The first is personal characteristics such as age, gender, marital status, race, occupation, behavior and income. They also examine patterns of time. They would look at seasonal occurrence, time of day, amount of time between major outbreaks. They would also look at location as a factor. Are there patterns geographically? Is there a difference in occurrence between rural and urban dwellers? Do the subjects being examined attend the same school or work at the same building?

Who Uses Epidemiology?

Originally, epidemiologists limited themselves to the area of communicable disease, especially epidemics. Since then, the field has come to include examining a variety of health problems, such as discovering the link between tobacco use and lung cancer. Over half of epidemiologists in the United States work for local, state or federal government offices to protect the health of the public by providing the information required to set public health policy. They are also needed by pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, universities, and even private research companies.

Related Resource: CDC Internships

Epidemiology is certainly an amazing field of study. Epidemiologists are the health detectives that can answer the questions your doctor cannot. They dig down to find root causes and use their findings to consider what can be done to avoid the same health problem in the future, or hopefully, catch a health crisis in its early stages to keep it from spreading and becoming an epidemic.


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