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. His or her goal is to reduce public health risks by studying the pattern of disease or several diseases, as well as other health risks like injury from car crashes or other accidents. Many epidemiologists can then make predictions about likelihood of disease occurrence, and develop prevention strategies.
Most epidemiologists have a bachelor’s degree in one of the sciences and a graduate degree in epidemiology. Important studies at the graduate level include learning about chronic and infectious diseases, studying psychology, physiology, biochemistry, genetics, environmental impacts on humans, toxicology, biostatistics, and health service administration. Having not only a good background in science but also good math skills, especially in the areas of statistics and probability are prime requirements, since so much of what epidemiologists do is dependent on interpretation of data.
In addition to the studies listed above, an epidemiologist can also specialize in certain areas of interest. For example, the epidemiologist might study cancer, if he or she is looking at ways to prevent it, or might study pandemics, reproduction, or nutrition. There are numerous specializations, but some take on more general work, depending upon where their interest lies.
Epidemiology is one of the central features in determining public health policy. An individual epidemiologist may work in a variety of fields. Most commonly government agencies employ epidemiologists to help research public health crises and to help set public health policy. Organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) employ many public health experts. Someone in this position might also work at a private research facility, a university, or as a consultant for both private and public agencies. Some work for government law enforcement agencies to develop plans for coping with terrorist attacks that may create a large number of injuries or that use chemical weapons.
The work of the epidemiologist is varied, given the many causes of disease and injury. On any given day epidemiologists might perform some of the following:
- Participate in daily research on a specific disease.
- Design a study on a public health issue.
- Speak, write about, or advocate for changes that will address a public health issue.
- Write reports on a finished research project.
- Collaborate with doctors and other health care workers to address specific health issues.
- Develop plans for coping with certain identified disease issues or risks.