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Epidemiologist

Epidemiologist

Epidemiologists are scientists that study the factors influencing the health status of populations. These populations may be defined by geography (such as the residents of a particular city), occupation (such as members of the armed forces), or any other common trait (such as age, race, or sex). Epidemiologists look for trends in measures of the health of the population, such as the average life span, the leading causes of death, and the number of cases of a disease that are found in the population. To determine what causes certain trends or health problems, epidemiologists collect large amounts of data about individuals in the population. They analyze these data to determine who is sick, when they got sick, and what factors the sick people have in common. The process is similar to that which investigators use to search for clues to solve a crime. Thus, epidemiologists are often described as "disease detectives."

Career Requirements, Employment, and Compensation

A career in epidemiology generally requires a master's or doctoral degree in public health. Epidemiologists work in many different settings: universities, industry, government, and nongovernmental research or health organizations. Those with master's degrees generally start as project officers or staff members, coordinating data collection and analysis for health studies and as they grow in experience they will advance within their organizations. The doctoral degree often leads to academic careers on university faculty and leadership positions in other research organizations and industry. Physicians who earn master's or doctoral degrees in public health also often fill these positions. Epidemiologists who receive additional training (usually as doctoral or postdoctoral students) in human and statistical genetics are often called "genetic epidemiologists," in recognition of their specialty within epidemiology. Compensation varies widely, depending on the level of education, employment setting, and experience. In 2001 the starting salary for a new graduate with a master's degree and no previous work experience might be in the $30,000 to $40,000 range; a Ph.D. or M.D./M.P.H. with several years' experience might earn over $100,000 in industry.

Many Roles, Many Rewards

Epidemiologists interested in the influence of genetic factors on health may play several types of roles on a research project, including assisting in the overall design of the study, developing instruments to collect nongenetic risk-factor data, and using that data to investigate possible interactions between genetic and nongenetic (environmental) factors that influence health. Genetic epidemiologists perform a similar role, using study designs and statistical approaches developed specifically for the analysis of human genetics data.

The professional rewards of a career in epidemiology are the excitement of discovery and the knowledge that epidemiologic studies can be used to help people improve or maintain their health over time. Epidemiologic research has significantly improved the public's health over the past century. Research results have been used to identify new medicines to treat disease, to educate the public about the health effects of cigarette smoking and inactive lifestyles, and to improve sanitation and water treatment, significantly reducing the burden of infectious disease in heavily populated areas.

see also Gene and Environment; Population Screening; Public Health, Genetic Techniques in; Statistical Geneticist.

William K. Scott

Bibliography

Jaret, Peter. "The Disease Detectives." National Geographic (January 1991): 114-140.

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Epidemiologist

Epidemiologist

An epidemiologist is a scientist who studies how diseases interact with populations. Most epidemiologists study the relationships between germs and people, but some investigate animal or plant diseases. These scientists study the factors involved in every aspect of a disease, including the start, spread, and treatment.

Three primary types of studies/reports are performed by epidemiologists: descriptive, analytical, and experimental. In descriptive studies epidemiologists determine the physical aspects of existing diseases. For example, they might record the number of cases of chicken pox in a given locale. Analytical studies report on the cause/effect relationships in a disease, such as the reasons behind increased numbers of cholera cases in a flood ravaged area or a decrease in influenza cases due to a mild winter. In experimental studies, epidemiologists test hypotheses about treatment of diseases such as the efficacy (success rate) of a hepatitis vaccine or testing experimental cures for HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) infections on animal models.

Epidemiologists work in a variety of settings, including the field (from urban health clinics to villages in Africa), the laboratory (testing vaccines), or the office (organizing and interpreting data).

In addition, epidemiologists work for a wide range of employers. Governmental services ranging from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to local city and county health departments employ many epidemiologists. International health centers such as the World Health Organization (WHO) track worldwide pandemics to localized epidemics across the globe. Hospitals often employ epidemiologists to assist them in disease control within the hospital. Epidemiologists also work in the private sector, often for pharmaceutical companies tracking the success rate of newly introduced drugs.

The degrees held by people working in epidemiology vary from associate degrees in health sciences to doctoral degrees specializing in epidemiology. Important secondary classes that could be taken to prepare for epidemiology training include microbiology, biology (advanced and general), medical terminology, biochemistry, and statistics.

see also Bacterial Diseases; Doctor, Specialist; Health and Safety Officer; Sexually Transmitted Diseases; Viral Diseases

Mark S. Davis

Bibliography

Black, Jacquelyn G. Microbiology Principles and Explorations, 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999.

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Epidemiologist

EPIDEMIOLOGIST

Epidemiologists blend demography, statistics, and community health with biomedical science to study diseases and other health conditions in populations. Epidemiologists employed by federal, state, and local public health agencies support disease-prevention program planning and evaluation by determining risk factors, trends, and patterns of disease occurrence in different population groups. These public health investigators use epidemiological methods to explain disease outbreaks and study emerging conditions such as Legionnaire's disease and Ebola virus infection. Epidemiologists have expanded their role from investigating infectious epidemics to studying a range of health conditions, including chronic diseases, injuries, mental health, and health-service delivery.

Robert J. Campbell

(see also: Communicable Disease Control; Community Health; Demography; Disease Prevention; Epidemiology; Noncommunicable Disease Control; Vital Statistics )

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