Early last year, the world came face to face with a deadly new virus. For the first few days, scientists and doctors were confused by this new variant of an old disease. Soon, people began to contract the virus, and there were deaths in millions. It seemed that the disease was spreading too rapidly to contain it. Since it was an evolving situation, governments were scrambling to introduce policies to stop the spread. In the midst of this all, there were mass panics. People began to panic buying necessities, and there was much misinformation about the disease. PUBLIC HEALTH
Fortunately, scientists and scientific research came to the rescue. Through the tireless work of these individuals, the world began to understand the fundamentals of this virus. These behind-the-scenes heroes are the ones we have to thank for the decrease in the occurrence of diseases. But who did the research? And who found out the best policies to contain it? The answer is epidemiologists.
There is a high chance that this is the first time you are hearing about epidemiologists. And you are not alone. For thousands of years, people have ridiculed epidemiology for not being a ‘true’ science. So, what is epidemiology? At a fundamental level, it is the study of diseases. Epidemiologists have to identify how a disease spreads and the cause of the disease. They also suggest methods to control the disease. Since diseases do not happen in a medical bubble, epidemiology is a cross-section of factors that exacerbate disease risk. These factors may be scientific, social, or political. Therefore, it is a unique science.
Shifting focus on the public:
Microbiologists or physicians have a myopic view of the world. They usually focus on the individual rather than the bigger picture. Furthermore, pharmacists consider the reaction of patients to therapy. Comparatively, epidemiology focuses on mass diseases. They identify a community and establish causal factors for their health issues. The population may be as small as a small community or as large as a country. This perspective is insightful as it helps identify problems within a population. It can guide policymakers and the government about which of their initiatives are working and which are not. Epidemiologists do not try to generalize issues of individuals to society. They choose to get to the bottom of things.
A cornerstone of public health:
Epidemiology is the cornerstone of public health. Public health survives on continuous exploration. Therefore, it is necessary to engage in research. Public health officials are constantly working to determine the causes of illness and disability. They also have a broader perspective than doctors since they consider the socio-economics of diseases. As we begin to understand the relevance of environmental factors to disease prevention, epidemiology will get more popular. The use of biostatistics to measure and monitor complex data can guide us to make better policies.
The introduction of public health intervention to improve health:
Another reason epidemiology is vital for public health is that it can help us develop public health interventions to improve lives. Epidemiological research relies on surveillance and anecdotal research to gauge the efficacy of disease prevention techniques. Then they can identify the risk associated with the condition and the people who are most at-risk of contracting it. Simply put, the goal is to create a body of evidence that helps us understand the disease in specific populations and make better recommendations.
What do public health epidemiologists do?
Public health epidemiologists research the causes of diseases and then communicate the data to policymakers and health professionals. They may also examine the effectiveness of public health programs and interventions. Therefore, the field is quantitative and analytic. Sometimes epidemiologists also collect data on symptoms, patient history, and recent treatments.
Bring actual changes in the lives of people:
Epidemiological studies have helped bring real change in the lives of people. For example, the study of tuberculosis amongst immigrants in New York City showed that overcrowding worsened the epidemic. The rates of transmission increased because people were living close to the infected patients. This research motivated officials to bring massive changes in housing and sanitation.
Another example is the current HIV epidemic across Saharan Africa. The research identified gaps in care delivery systems and problems within the healthcare infrastructure. It also illustrated health disparities within the system. Furthermore, it also showed that some geographic areas were “hot spots” of transmission because of their socio-economic characteristics. Resultantly, there was an upsurge in policy initiatives on HIV epidemic control. The state introduced a structural and population-level approach to prevention. They reduced stigma and helped foster cultural competency for healthcare providers.
So, is epidemiology the science of public health?
The upshot of our discussion is that epidemiology is undoubtedly necessary for the 21st Century. But, can we call it the “science” of public health? While many critics would disagree with this statement, there is a scientific element to epidemiology. It is a multidisciplinary approach to human health and disease within a community. Epidemiologists have to consider many variables and provide actionable data to policymakers.
In the current atmosphere, we have realized the relevance of public health. The pandemic has brought home the importance of researching the causes and defects of diseases. Therefore, it would be unwise to dismiss epidemiology as a “lesser” science. These studies have made monumental changes to our healthcare policies and improved how we handle such situations.