Epidemiology is the area of healthcare that deals with the incidence, distribution, and possible control of diseases, illnesses and other factors relating to health. Epidemiologists are professionals in the medical field, but they aren’t necessarily doctors. By definition, they work largely in controlled conditions in a laboratory. If a disease breaks out or there is an epidemic, epidemiologists will go into the field to study the disease-causing organisms directly and to advise authorities on control strategies. They will also safely collect such organisms for further study in laboratory conditions where the environment is contained and controlled. Even during times of no crisis, their work is invaluable because they often predict future disease occurrences and can make recommendations on preventative measures.
What is Epidemiology?
Epidemiology is a field where trained epidemiologists study patterns of frequency and the causes and effects of diseases in human populations. Epidemiology provides the scientific footings for evidence-based medicine and allows placement of strategies for improvement in public health. Epidemiology is often referred to as the cornerstone of modern public health research and practice and it relies on a variety of relevant public health areas, including biology, biostatistics, social sciences, and assessing risk of exposure to a threat.
What does an epidemiologist do? Epidemiologists design, implement, and manage studies of various types regarding pathogens. Their work could pertain to pandemics, such as the present COVID-19 pandemic, or to isolated outbreaks of wholly unrelated diseases. Even in relatively mundane situations, such as a minor salmonella outbreak, it is up to epidemiologists to contain the outbreak, investigate the cause, and determine if any other factors are in play. They will collect data, analyze the data, and make sure that all of the proper authorities in every instance get the information they need.
Once they’ve created a response strategy, they must also collect further data to evaluate the effectiveness of the strategy. In cases where a vaccine is developed, they must not only track the vaccine’s effectiveness but also the occurrence of any mutated strains of the disease for which the vaccine was originally developed. This is where the epidemiologist’s attention to detail is vital. Without “good data” upon which to rely, new strains could pose unforeseen problems.
Epidemiologists must therefore also be responsible for their staffs in the field, the labs, and in the relevant offices. They must oversee these staffs for accuracy and ethics while still maintaining the highest degree of both in themselves.
What is an Epidemiologist?
Epidemiologists study outbreaks of diseases, the causes, locations, and how various communities are affected, utilizing relative information to aid in the prevention of future outbreaks. Epidemiologists help to keep the public informed of methods to maintain and improve public health. Epidemiologists work at universities and for government organizations including the (CDC) Centers for Disease Control, National Institute of Health (NIH), or the World Health Organization (WHO). The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that epidemiologists earned an average of $65,270 in 2012 with the top ten percent of epidemiologists earning at least $108,320.
Epidemiologists are more than just folks in white lab coats hunching over microscopes looking at Petri dishes. There are a wide variety of specializations in the field that cover nearly all disease variables. Some study the pathology of cardiovascular diseases. They perform studies with random samples of the population, often comparing different age demographics. It is their goal to determine risk factors and possible outcomes of different age groups. Others study the effects of drugs on patients, not just regarding the efficacy of these drugs on the diseases they treat but also the short-term and long-term effects of the drugs on those patients outside the realm of the applicable diseases.
Still others focus their attention on the various ways that diseases infect people, transmit themselves from one person to another, and affect the environment. This includes both the effect of the diseases themselves and their communicability. These field epidemiologists work closely with infectious-disease epidemiologists in the laboratory to develop vaccines. Both work with molecular epidemiologists to find out how pathogens interact with the body and how a vaccine will affect both the pathogens and the body they infect.
What are the Degree Options for a Career in Epidemiology?
Students not wishing to become full epidemiologists may incorporate epidemiology in their study of a related field while pursuing their associate degrees. Nurse practitioners are one such subgroup, and they bolster their skill sets through such study.
Even business majors who go into medical billing gain some rudimentary knowledge of epidemiology, especially pertaining to disease testing and the terms associated therewith. Some students eventually pursue master’s degrees in public health and begin with an associate degree as groundwork.
Certificate programs also exist for certain topics within the field of epidemiology, and people at all levels of their education seek these to remain up-to-date on all the “latest and greatest” in the field. Some epidemiologists even go through such programs as part of their continuing education.
- Bachelor’s Degree – Most universities and colleges do not offer undergraduate programs in Epidemiology and those who want to pursue epidemiology careers usually choose to pursue medicine or other health fields prior to graduate studies.
Still, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in a field that prepares someone for a graduate degree in epidemiology is a good idea. Biostatistics is one such field. Students study many different aspects of the field of medicine and sort data into different categories. They keep track of the tendencies in these categories as part of their training. This prepares them for the clinical “scientific model” that is necessary when studying diseases and disease-causing organisms.
Students develop and hone their analytical skills and thought processes. They also naturally develop their skills in both problem solving and critical thinking. By focusing on these aspects of the 120 credit hours they usually complete in pursuit of their bachelor’s degrees, students correctly prepare themselves to move on in the field of epidemiology.
- Master’s Degree – Epidemiologists are required to have at least a Master’s degree from an accredited University or College. Most epidemiologists have a Master’s Degree in Public Health (MPH) or a related field. Epidemiology graduate programs provide students with the skills to investigate and analyze the root causes and spread of disease to develop methods of prevention and control. The most common degree is a Master of Public Health with a concentration or focus on epidemiology, however degree programs that focus solely on epidemiology are becoming more popular. Most Master’s Degree programs require students to complete a practicum or internship that can last for up to one year. In addition to a Master’s Degree in Epidemiology some programs offer highly concentrated degrees for those pursuing particular career paths. Some areas of specialization can include focus on cancer, cardiovascular disease, genetics, infectious disease, environmental causes and aging.
- Doctoral Degree – Some research epidemiologists may be required to hold a Ph.D. or medical degree depending on the careers they choose. A doctoral degree provides graduates the skills and knowledge required to be at the top of their chosen field. The doctorate degree in epidemiology consists of one to three years of study and a doctoral dissertation. Those who earn a doctorate will find more opportunities available including more in-depth research studies or options for teaching. Students in a doctoral program can specialize in specific areas of epidemiology including cancer research or zoonotic infectious diseases.
In many clinical settings, some of the most sought-after people hold both a medical degree and a master’s of epidemiology. A doctor who becomes an epidemiologist has better insight into the causes of the very diseases that need treatment. This is particularly true of infections disease specialists. Having “both clubs in the bag,” so to speak, makes such specialists the best-trained and educated members of the medical community when it comes to diseases.
The method for a doctor to become an epidemiologist is the same as it is for anyone else. That person would have to complete a master’s degree in epidemiology that is separate from medical school and the required residency. Epidemiologists who want also to become doctors would usually focus on pre-med studies as an undergraduate and might even do a combined degree program that included a master’s in epidemiology before going on to medical school.
What Are the Top 10 Master’s in Public Health Epidemiology Programs?
U.S. News and World Report ranks Johns Hopkins as the No. 1 school for Public Healh in the United States. Following Johns Hopkins in the rest of the top 10 are:
- Harvard University
- University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
- Columbia University
- Emory University
- University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
- University of Washington
- Boston University
- University of California-Berkeley
- University of Minnesota-Twin Cities
Each of these universities provides students with many foci within the field. Accordingly, these top 10 places also have excellent medical schools for those who wish to be both medical doctors and epidemiologists.
Osteopathy and Epidemiology
Over the last 10 or 15 years, researchers have studied the efficacy of evidence-based medicine, or EBM, in various aspects of the world of medicine. One such aspect is the field of epidemiology. These studies began with the application of osteopathic manipulative treatment for lower-back pain and how the epidemiology of certain diseases might affect or even cause such pain. They’ve moved on into all clinical applications of OMT for a variety of conditions.
Because osteopaths treat patients holistically as well as medically, the study of epidemiology within that framework provides researchers with a dual perspective. Data gathered during such studies can be applied allopathically as well. That makes these studies important for the advancement of all branches of medicine.
What Are the Future Career Paths for Those With Graduate Degrees in Epidemiology?
This area of Healthcare Management is an excellent option for individuals who want to help track patterns of illness and disease and decipher plans to stop further spread. A career as an Epidemiologist is a great way to help your community, society and humankind.
As with many other jobs, people who have advanced degrees, additional certifications, and more job experience, not to mention a combination of all three, will earn more than their less-qualified and less-experienced counterparts. Medical doctors who are also epidemiologists will earn their full doctor’s salary, perhaps with a bonus for being epidemiologists too.
Those who pursue careers in epidemiology within public health work in many capacities including within universities and government organizations including the (CDC) Centers for Disease Control, National Institute of Health (NIH), or World Health Organization. The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that epidemiologists earned an average of $65,270 in 2012 with the top ten percent of epidemiologists earning at least $108,320.
Given the virulence of the present pandemic and the fact that this is undoubtedly not the last pandemic with which the world must deal, the career opportunities for epidemiologists are going to expand into the future. Molecular epidemiologists, in particular, are going to grow much faster than most other jobs because they’re the ones who deal with the genetics of the virus. The study of the genetics of the virus is what has produced the messenger-RNA vaccines that are being released today.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average job growth of all jobs in the U.S. is roughly 4% annually. The job growth of epidemiologists is going to approach 10% between 2020 and 2030, and it is likely to be more than that if other pandemics arise.
What does an epidemiologist do? They’re currently the most crucial people for the safety of 21st-century society. Their research worldwide has produced the first vaccines for COVID-19 and has given people hope that things might return to some semblance of normal in the near future. Additionally, their work will safeguard the future against further catastrophe. Epidemiology is, therefore, an honorable and much-needed career, and students should be proud to pursue it.