Why do different diseases occur in different groups of people? How often does it happen, and why?
The field of epidemiology seeks to answer and explain these questions through research, studies and planning. According to the Center for Disease Control, epidemiology is “the method used to find the causes of health outcomes and diseases in populations.”
Epidemiology is systematic and data-driven and studies local, national and global populations – at some points, local may even be narrowed down to one neighborhood or a school. It examines many types of public health issues, such as:
- Environmental exposures (lead, air pollutants)
- Infectious diseases (flu, salmonella)
- Injuries (increase in violent crimes)
- Non-infectious diseases (cancer rise, increase in birth defects)
- Natural disasters (hurricanes, earthquakes)
- Terrorist attacks (shootings, release of bioweapons)
What Does an Epidemiologist Do?
An epidemiologist is someone trained in public health who investigates disease and injury patterns and tries to identify ways to reduce negative health outcomes. Those ways may be through educating communities, amending health policies or research.
They plan and conduct studies of public health issues, analyze data to find disease origins, plan public health programs and try to improve those programs through making data-driven decisions. They may collect blood samples from a population to analyze similarities and find the cause of a disease, or to see who is at risk of contracting an illness.
They work in applied public health or in research. Applied epidemiologists work with local and state governments to find ways to directly impact public health issues, while research epidemiologists work mostly with universities or federal agencies like the CDC and National Institutes of Health. Those who work in the private sector work with insurance and pharmaceutical companies, while some choose to work with nonprofits.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, epidemiologists specialize in areas like:
- Infectious or chronic disease
- Maternal and child health
- Public health preparedness
- Environmental and/or occupational health
- Oral health
- Substance abuse
- Mental health
How to Become an Epidemiologist
Most epidemiologist jobs require a master’s degree in public health or another related field, while some epidemiologists have doctoral degrees. Those who conduct research projects typically have a Ph.D. or medical degree, while those in a clinical setting may have a medical degree along with an epidemiology degree.
Jacksonville University’s Master of Science in Health Informatics provides a good foundation for anyone interested in epidemiology and how it affects evidence-based health.
The occupation requires a strong foundation in science, math and analysis, particularly in statistics. Courses in epidemiology programs teach survey design, analysis and statistical methods, while the more advanced programs investigate medical informatics, multiple regression and review of prior research.
To do well in this field, candidates also need to have good communication skills, as many work in the community to educate the public about health risks, and they also write research papers about their studies. Critical thinking skills and detail-oriented thinking are also vital as much of the time is spent analyzing statistics and prior research.
Job Outlook and Salary
According to the BLS, this occupation is projected to grow 9% by 2026, which is about average growth for all occupations. As of May 2016, the median annual salary for epidemiologists was $70,820. The lowest 10% brought in $46,870 while the top 10% earned $114,510. Those working in scientific research and development services made the most, while government employees made around $64,000 a year.
Salaries may vary by region and with experience, so job seekers are encouraged to conduct their own research.