What does an Epidemiologist do?

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What is an Epidemiologist?

Epidemiologists investigate the causes of disease and other public health problems to prevent them from spreading or from happening again. They report their findings to public policy officials and to the general public. Epidemiologists work in health departments, offices, universities, and laboratories. Some do fieldwork to conduct interviews and collect samples for analyses. Fieldwork may require interacting with sick patients, but epidemiologists use safety precautions to minimize their exposure.

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What does an Epidemiologist do?

Epidemiologists typically do the following:

  • Plan and direct studies of public health problems to find ways to prevent and to treat the problems
  • Collect and analyze data—including using observations, interviews, surveys, and samples of blood or other bodily fluids—to find the causes of diseases or other health problems
  • Communicate their findings to health practitioners, policymakers, and the public
  • Manage public health programs by planning programs, monitoring progress, analyzing data, and seeking ways to improve them, among other activities
  • Supervise professional, technical, and clerical personnel

Epidemiologists collect and analyze data to investigate health issues. For example, an epidemiologist might collect and analyze demographic data to determine who is at the highest risk for a particular disease. Research epidemiologists typically work for universities. Applied epidemiologists work with governments, addressing health crises directly. The most common problem both types of epidemiologists work on is infectious diseases, but they examine other public health issues, as well. Epidemiologists who work in private industry commonly work for health insurance companies or pharmaceutical companies. Those in non-profit companies often do public advocacy work. Typically, epidemiologists study one or more of the following public health areas:

  • Infectious diseases
  • Bioterrorism/emergency response
  • Maternal and child health
  • Chronic diseases
  • Environmental health
  • Injury
  • Occupational health
  • Substance abuse
  • Oral health

How to become an Epidemiologist

Epidemiologists need at least a master’s degree from an accredited postsecondary institution. Most have a master’s degree in epidemiology or a related field. Some epidemiologists have a Ph.D.

Epidemiologists need at least a master’s degree from an accredited postsecondary institution. Most have a master’s degree in public health, with an emphasis in epidemiology or a related field. Advanced epidemiologists—including those in colleges and universities—have a Ph.D. in their chosen field. Coursework in epidemiology includes public health, biology, and biostatistics.

In medical school, students spend most of the first 2 years in laboratories and classrooms, taking courses such as anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, pharmacology, psychology, microbiology, pathology, medical ethics, and laws governing medicine. They also learn to take medical histories, examine patients, and diagnose illnesses. Epidemiologists must use their expertise and experience to determine how they can disseminate their findings to the public properly.

Epidemiologists analyze their findings to determine how best to respond to a public health problem or a graver health-related emergency. Epidemiologists must be precise and accurate in moving from observation and interview to conclusions. Epidemiologists work with both qualitative methods (observations and interviews) and quantitative methods (surveys and analysis of biological data) in their work. Epidemiologists must communicate complex findings so that public policy officials and the public can understand the magnitude of a health problem. Written communication is critical for helping decision makers and the public understand the conclusions and recommendations that epidemiologists make.

What is the workplace of an Epidemiologist like?

They work in health departments, offices, universities, laboratories, or in the field. They spend most of their time studying data and reports in a safe lab or office setting. Epidemiologists have minimal risk when they work in laboratories or in the field, because they take extensive precautions before interacting with samples or patients. In 2010, 54 percent of epidemiologists worked for federal, state, and local governments. Other epidemiologists worked for pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, colleges, or in life science research and development.

External Reading

  • Dr. Minda Weldon, Epidemiologist blog.growingwithscience.com

    Most people know that epidemiologists study outbreaks of infectious diseases, but they do a lot more, too. Epidemiologists study cancer, birth defects, exposure to possible environmental toxins, injuries, food poisoning and much more.

  • Emergency Epidemiology blogs.msf.org

    Ruby is currently writing about her work on our emergency response to typhoon Haiyan on our Philippines blog.

  • Epidemiologist: Salary money.usnews.com

    The best-compensated in the profession live in the metropolitan areas of Oakland, Calif., San Diego and Denver.

  • What Is An Epidemiologist? www.wisegeek.org

    An epidemiologist is a person who studies patterns of diseases or health risks in population groups, societies, and cultures. He or she may look at how diseases affect certain populations, the emergence of viruses in geographical locations, or he or she may track certain diseases.

  • Becoming An Epidemiologist www.innerbody.com

    Epidemiologists are detectives who research the causes and consequences of illness and disease. Their research informs public health policies and disease management strategies around the world.

  • What Is Epidemiology? www.bmj.com

    Epidemiology is the study of how often diseases occur in different groups of people and why. Epidemiological information is used to plan and evaluate strategies to prevent illness and as a guide to the management of patients in whom disease has already developed.