Public Health Concerns Create Work for Epidemiologists The Buzz


It seems like we hear stories about new diseases on the news every night. And many of us think of these stories when we hear the word "epidemic." But epidemiologists study a huge number of issues. This variety, and the current importance of many of those issues, can create a lot of opportunities for people who work in this field.

"This field is rapidly growing and evolving and is an important and exciting place to focus," says Dr. Christine Friedenreich. She works with a cancer board studying population health. "There is increasing understanding for the need to prevent disease, and epidemiology is one of the key disciplines to be in for this type of work."

What do Epidemiologists Study?

One of the definitions of epidemiology is "the branch of medicine that deals with the study of the causes, distribution, and control of disease in populations."

This could be a disease like avian flu. Or it may mean the study of how an anthrax attack might affect the population. However, it could also include areas that may be less obvious. Mental health, natural disasters, aging, obesity and gambling are just some examples.

Living conditions also have a definite impact on areas of study. Because those conditions change, the studies themselves must keep up.

Dr. Stephen Schwartz is the graduate program director for the University of Washington's department of epidemiology. "One of the fun things about being an epidemiologist is that the risk factors we study are constantly changing due to how we humans change our environment," he explains.

"One example is that new drugs are introduced all the time to treat certain health problems. But these drugs have side effects that need to be quantified [measured] in order to determine whether they are too severe.

"Another example is that our cities and towns are increasingly designed for cars to move about, but not for people to move about. This contributes to less regular physical activity, which probably contributes substantially to obesity and its associated problems."

Friedenreich explains that epidemiology is "really a set of research methods and analytic approaches that can be used to study any disease. So all diseases can be examined using epidemiology."

Schwartz expands on this. "Any adverse health condition, no matter what the cause, is a target for an epidemiologist to study. These could include cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer's disease, or intentional injuries like those caused by violence.

"Then there's diabetes, hearing loss, depression and unintentional injuries -- like those caused by automobile collisions, for example. If you name it, epidemiologists have probably studied it."

But epidemiologists do more than study. They act as a front line against diseases of all types. Some do this by working in health departments and tracking different diseases. Others may choose a more academic life and conduct research studies. Whatever their chosen path, their role in public health is critical.

And with all of those paths to choose from, a lot of opportunities can be found in this field.

Promising Outlook for Trained Epidemiologists

Vickie Brown is a representative of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC). She believes that the future looks promising for those seeking a career in this field.

"There will always be a need for epidemiologists," she says. "Most people working today as epidemiologists have had little to no formal training. The need for academically trained epidemiologists is urgent."

Opportunities within the field in general are expected to remain strong. But certain specific areas may experience additional growth.

Current Areas of Growth

Areas of study that include genetics, in particular, fall into the growth category. These areas include genomics, which is the study of genes and their function. Molecular epidemiology also falls into this category. In short, this type of research helps to identify which people may be at risk when exposed to certain external factors.

"This field combines biology and epidemiology," explains Friedenreich. "It is used to improve ways of measuring exposures to external factors and to determine if someone is at risk for a disease. These are the so-called 'biomarkers' of exposure and disease effect."

Other growth sectors include infectious disease epidemiology and disaster epidemiology. These are growing because of the occurrence of terrorism and natural disasters and the threat of pandemic (widespread) disease.

"For those working in communicable disease epidemiology, a major focus has been on the flu pandemic," says Friedenreich.

And what about those nightly news stories? Do they affect this profession? Some within the field believe they do.

Dr. Nicholas Smith is an associate professor in the University of Washington's department of epidemiology. "The popular press has some impact on the direction of research," he explains.

"Often, these issues come to the attention of Congress, who mandate research. But most topics in epidemiology are less sexy and usually build upon existing research."

Advice for Students

Students wishing to enter this hot field should select courses in life sciences and mathematics. Science courses include biology, human biology, genetics and human health. For mathematics, statistics is a must. Future epidemiologists must also possess excellent analytical skills and an understanding of research procedures.

"Take college courses that are rich in analytic content and biology," advises Schwartz. "Get some experience by working at a local health department or medical center on a project that involves population health. Or work in a laboratory that is doing human health research."

"Students should explore their interest in health-related topics and develop their mathematical and analytical skills," adds Brown. "They can try to interview an epidemiologist in their community by contacting their health department, local hospital or a health-related industry."

Epidemiologists may need to know how to write grants. Grants provide the money needed to run a research study. People working in this field should also be able to manage people, be organized and analytical, and be able to clearly present results both verbally and in written form.

Clearly, it takes a lot of preparation and hard work to become an epidemiologist. But the personal satisfaction and other benefits make it worthwhile.

"Epidemiology is a fantastic discipline that is broad and all-encompassing and can be adapted to a wide range of interests," says Friedenreich. "It is making important contributions to scientific knowledge and will continue to do so. I strongly endorse students to consider a career in this field."

Links

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Information and data from U.S. government health department

Infectious Diseases Society of America
Includes career and education information

The Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, Inc. (APIC)
Focuses on infection control in health settings

World Health Organization
Check out the vast list of health topics provided by this United Nations agency