About Epidemiology

What is Epidemiology?

Epidemiology, literally translated from Greek, means "the study of people".

In fact, we use the term epidemiology to mean the study of diseases or other health related events in populations.

Epidemiology has three main aims:

  • To describe disease and other health related event patterns in human populations.
  • To identify the causes of diseases and other health related events (also known as aetiology).
  • To provide data essential for the management, evaluation and planning of services for the prevention, control and treatment of disease and other health related events.

Professionals who work in the area of epidemiology are known as epidemiologists.

Epidemiology combines the disciplines of medicine, health sciences, social sciences on the one hand and statistics on the other and, to some extent detective work, to make an interesting and varied profession.

What is an Epidemiologist?

According to Last et al (2000), an epidemiologist is:
"An investigator who studies the occurrence of disease or other health-related conditions or events in defined populations. The control of disease in populations is often also considered to be a task for the epidemiologist"

Last J, Spasoff R, Harris S. A dictionary of epidemiology.
Oxford University Press, New York, 2000.

How do you become an epidemiologist?

There are many and varied pathways to becoming an epidemiologist. They usually involve an undergraduate degree in a related field such as medicine, health science, science with majors in mathematics/statistics, psychology, or sociology or a range of biomedical sciences, followed by a postgraduate degree in epidemiology, biostatistics or public health. The options for postgraduate study include:

  1. a graduate diploma or masters degree in epidemiology, biostatistics or public health that involves substantial coursework, including units in epidemiology, and completion of a minor research project with dissertation
  2. a Masters by research degree or PhD in epidemiology, biostatistics or public health focused on a major research project usually with at least some coursework undertaken prior to or during the period of study.

Epidemiologists with responsibility for designing, attracting funding for, supervising and analysing epidemiological studies funded by major funding bodies will usually have completed a PhD in preparation for conducting epidemiological research. Epidemiologists working in applied areas such as 'shoe leather' communicable disease control or analysis of routine data to support policy development, etc, are undertaken by those who take  either pathway. 

Some undergraduate degree programs now include courses in epidemiology and biostatistics, but to be called an epidemiologist a piece of epidemiological research, usually at the postgraduate level, needs to be undertaken.

If you are interested in studying to be an epidemiologist, you can contact one of the many schools of public or population health in Australia or New Zealand. Searching the internet will give you details of many related courses.

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