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Epidemiology

The part of your health care you don’t see

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You may have heard the word “epidemiologist” a lot recently. So, why haven’t you heard about epidemiologists before now? It’s because if things are going well, it’s life as usual for the general public. We make “life as usual” possible for the world. We’re invested in prevention, and prevention is something that’s easily taken for granted. It’s hard to focus on something that didn’t happen. We work in conjunction with other public health professionals, medical doctors (MDs), nurses, care coordinators, etc. to help ensure that diseases don’t get out of control, and address them when they do. We’re one of the many people invested in your health. You’ve just never heard of us. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018 there were 7,600 epidemiologists in the US. That’s 7,600 people who are dedicated to keeping you safe that you don’t interact with when you get sick because that’s kind of the point. We don’t want to see you. Ever. Because not seeing you means we’ve been really successful in our jobs.

I am an epidemiologist. It’s a big word for what, I think, is a big job. When I say big job, I mean big like entire population of a country big. Big like population of the world big. Epidemiology is the branch of science that looks at the distribution, pattern, and possible control of diseases (think epidemics). It’s kind of a hybrid of math and medicine; a mix of statistics and understanding how specific diseases work. For example, in the database of knowledge in an epidemiologist’s head you have: understanding how diseases spread (if they are infectious diseases), who is at highest risk for contracting/developing them, signs and symptoms of infection, roughly how much disease is in a given population of people, and what circumstances could result in an outbreak. In a nutshell, the job is to help determine tipping points for diseases, which indicate when and where an outbreak could occur as well as who is at highest risk. We’re in the job of preparing for pandemics, since pandemics are global outbreaks of a disease.

What’s important to keep in mind about epidemiologists is that we are different from MDs in some key ways. Typically, we have a research background as opposed to a practice background (like MDs do). We also don’t focus on one patient at a time. Instead, we take a much wider view. I think about communities and populations of people. Because of this wider view, the kind of perspective that I have on health and health care is quite different than that of an MD. An MD can diagnose a specific disease in a specific person. An epidemiologist is the person that discovers that certain diseases appear more in certain communities. Medical doctors treat an ongoing outbreak, while epidemiologists try to prevent and/or contain it.

What I’m trying to tell you with all of this is that there are people who trained for this exact moment. There are people trained to deal with this exact situation. We’re not flashy or glamorous. We don’t get the press of other professions. But, we’re working to mitigate the situation. Because that’s what we do.