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What is Descriptive Epidemiology?

December 30, 2021
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Public health experts have never been more important than they are in the world today. From cancer to Ebola to COVID-19, major health events affect us all. As globalization, climate disasters and economic and social disruptions expand, we need trained professionals to help mitigate those threats. To meet health needs, public health professionals continue to serve and protect through research, policymaking and administration in the field of infectious disease preparedness and prevention. Specialists in the field of epidemiology are responsible for some of today’s most important public health research and data analysis.

What is descriptive epidemiology? Keep reading to find out, and to explore the skills and qualifications necessary to pursue a career in this life-saving field.

What is Descriptive Epidemiology?

Epidemiology is the science concerned with the factors that influence and determine the frequency and distribution of disease, injury, and other health-related events, and their causes in a defined human population. Its goal is to establish causal factors for health issues in order to improve the health and safety of entire populations, such as towns, countries, age groups or races. A health issue is anything that might affect health now or in the future: illness, accident, natural disaster, economic strife, and so on. For epidemiologists, “Who is most likely to be injured in an automobile accident?” can be just as valuable a line of inquiry as, “What part of the population is at highest risk for developing complications from the flu?”

Experts in two main branches of this science—analytical and descriptive epidemiology—work to decrease health events and diseases by understanding the risk factors for them. Both branches serve public health organizations by providing information that may reduce disease and other kinds of events affecting human health.

So what is descriptive epidemiology? It’s a speciality that evaluates and catalogs all the circumstances surrounding a person affected by a particular health event. The more fully a descriptive epidemiologist can describe people, places and times, and any correlations between the three, the more likely it is that patterns will emerge which can be considered risk factors for certain kinds of health issues.

Analytical epidemiologists use the data gathered by descriptive epidemiologists to look for patterns that suggest causes.

What Do Descriptive Epidemiologists Do?

In descriptive epidemiology, scientists examine and describe in detail the people, places and times related to public health events, in order to understand and reduce health risks. They consider the impact of demographic, geographic and socioeconomic factors. They also take into account behavioral influences such as diet, work schedule, exercise frequency, drug use and sexual habits, all of which may influence a person’s health and health risk.

They ask questions known as the five Ws:

  • What (is the health event or diagnosis)?
  • When (did the health event occur)?
  • Where (did it take place?
  • Who (are the people involved and affected)?
  • Why/how (did it happen)?

Of these five, they focus primarily on three:

People
Who is affected? Descriptive epidemiology looks for the age, education, race, socioeconomic status, sex, gender, and access to health services of the people involved in health events. Specialists may look into religious, cultural and social influences, as well.

Time
When and for how long do health events occur? Descriptive epidemiology tracks and records the dates and lengths of disease exposure and use of control measures. This can help determine whether a disease primarily occurs seasonally, such as influenza in winter, or at any time, such as hepatitis B.

Location
This research details where health events take place. Descriptive epidemiologists detail the birthplace, place of residence, site of employment, treatment location and other relevant geographic locations of the people affected.

The information they gather helps descriptive epidemiologists formulate hypotheses about the sources of outbreaks and health events, which helps public health officials analyze data, identify risk factors and improve health outcomes.

What’s the Workplace in Descriptive Epidemiology?

The nature of the work at the heart of descriptive epidemiology can vary from that in other parts of the field. Descriptive epidemiologists travel to administer studies, interviews and surveys, which puts them on the ground level in communities with severe, acute public health crises—think global outbreaks and natural disasters—which are usually sudden, unexpected, and in need of time-sensitive response.

Descriptive epidemiologists may also attend and support educational events or aid local officials in implementing disease prevention strategies.

The majority of epidemiologists work in state government (35%) or local government (19%).2 A significant number work in general hospitals (15%) and in research-teaching positions at universities (11%).3 Descriptive epidemiologists often work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, the National Institutes of Health or other government or global organizations whose goal is to help protect the public from health events.

The Growing Demand for Epidemiologists

As the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, epidemiologists’ work is crucial in creating and ensuring healthy societies.

As many workers retire or make transitions to other jobs, we need new experts to fill the gaps. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that opportunities for epidemiologists will expand by 30%—much faster than the average growth rate—in the decade from 2020 to 2030.2 The number of open positions will most likely hover around 900 each year.

Cutting-edge healthcare technology will continue to aid in the discovery of new diseases over the next decade. Additionally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an increasing number of hospitals are expected to join infection-tracking programs such as the National Healthcare Safety Network.4 Both of these expansions will result in heightened demand for descriptive epidemiologists.

Becoming a Descriptive Epidemiologist

Becoming an epidemiologist requires education and training beyond a bachelor’s degree. There are no official national licensing or educational requirements, but a master’s-level degree—a Master of Science in Clinical Epidemiology, a Master of Public Health with a specialization in epidemiology, or another related degree—is the accepted standard. You may choose to complete doctoral studies in epidemiology or medicine, as well, particularly if your interests lie in clinical work.

To pursue a career in epidemiology, look into an accredited program with experienced, professional faculty. Coursework should focus on public health, biological and physical sciences, math and statistics. Specific specialty courses may cover chronic diseases, infectious diseases or research principles. Most reputable programs include a practicum as part of the required coursework.

In addition to the expertise you’ll gain through graduate work, success as an epidemiologist requires that you’re adept with:

Math and statistics. Your advanced statistical skills will help you design and administer studies and surveys.

Details. Precision and accuracy are essential as you move from observation and interview to conclusions.

Communication. Clear communication is key in effective work with other health professionals, and you’ll need to speak and write well to inform the public and community leaders about public health risks.

Critical thinking. You’ll be called upon to analyze data to determine the best responses to public health problems and health-related emergencies.

Teaching. Epidemiologists are often involved in educating the public about health risks and healthy living.

Your Expertise Can Save Lives for Generations

Expand your knowledge and advance your healthcare career with Kent State’s online Master of Science in Clinical Epidemiology. Study with our expert faculty and complete your degree entirely online and on your schedule. Explore the robust curriculum and bring your questions to one of our Admissions Advisors today.

Sources
  1. Retrieved on December 23, 2021, from cdc.gov/csels/dsepd/ss1978/lesson1/section6.html
  2. Retrieved on December 23, 2021, from www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/epidemiologists.html
  3. Retrieved on December 23, 2021, from publichealthonline.org/epidemiology/
  4. Retrieved on December 23, 2021, from cdc.gov/media/pressrel/2007/r070627a.htm