The Epidemiologist: Dark Horse of Public Health

By Chris Healey

Many identify physicians as the preeminent professional in the health field – followed by dentists, physical therapists, pharmacists, and nurses – to name a few. However, one of the most important cogs in the health infrastructure mechanization is publicly obscure, yet works almost exclusively with the public. The epidemiologist is the most important health professional you may never meet.

An epidemiologist is not intentionally obscure. The occupation simply does not require as much face-to-face interaction as other health professionals. Instead, epidemiologists analyze data collected by healthcare providers to discern patterns overlooked on a patient-by-patient basis. That data is often analyzed offsite, away from patients. While physicians are treating the individual, epidemiologists are looking at the big picture.

State and federal regulations require physicians and other health professionals to report pertinent diagnosis and patient information to local health departments. That data is collected and analyzed by regional and district epidemiologists to detect unusual disease instances or patterns in their respective regions and districts. Data from local health departments is collected and further consolidated on the state and federal level by state health departments and the Centers for Disease Control respectively.

Epidemiologists serve as the vanguard in outbreak and bioterrorism detection. A clandestine bioterrorism event will likely be detected first by epidemiologists. For example, while several physicians may treat several different E. coli casesin the same day, they are unlikely to communicate mutual diagnoses among themselves. However, an epidemiologist whom analyzes all E. coli diagnoses that day may be able to discern unusual incidence. A physician can identify a single illness, but epidemiologists identify outbreaks and epidemics.

Incidence and pattern detection is only one function of the typical epidemiologist. Once pathogens of interest are detected, epidemiologists investigate patients to determine how they became infected with the respective agent. While physicians can serve in an investigative capacity, diagnosis and treatment of the patient at hand is often their focus. Epidemiologic investigations typically include patient interviews and environmental sample collection. In instances of foodborne illnesses, those investigations are critical to identify the tainted food and water sources. Product recalls and water treatment advisories are often the result of epidemiologic investigations.

Epidemiologists are often marginalized in popular culture and cinema. They are conflated, and often completely replaced, with physicians. However, the 2011 film Contagion portrayed epidemiologists as discrete health professionals with accurate—though dramatized—job functions.

Epidemiology is a growing field. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, epidemiologist employment is projected to grow 10 percent from 2012 to 2022, which is about as fast as the average for all occupations.


(Image Credit: Contagion)

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