The Role of Biostatistics in Public Health

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Biostatistics is a critical and invaluable tool in developing public health policy and initiatives. Merriam-Webster’s defines biostatistics as the “statistical processes and methods applied to the collection, analysis, and interpretation of biological data and especially data relating to human biology, health, and medicine.” Public health officials, health care professionals, and the scientific community rely on accurate and timely data to deal with outbreaks of infectious diseases such as Ebola and COVID-19.


To learn more, check out the infographic below created by the Regis College’s Online Master of Public Health program.

How biostatistics can inform ways to fight infectious diseases and public health crises.

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How Data Informs Public Health Initiatives

Health data can be obtained from a variety of sources, including surveys, medical records, claims data, vital records, surveillance, disease registries, and peer-reviewed literature.

Medical records, claims data, and vital records can collect data on a wide range of subjects, such as diagnoses, lab tests, doctor’s appointments, and births. Peer-review literature, reviewed by journal editors and expert scholars, can contain data collected by researchers via a host of methods. Surveys such as questionnaires or in-depth interviews can gather data on subjects such as the ways individuals use health care, specific conditions, child development, and patient demographics.

Another way data is collected is through surveillance, defined by researchers as “the ongoing systematic collection, analysis, and interpretation of data, closely integrated with the timely dissemination of these data to those responsible for preventing and controlling diseases and injury.” Institutions involved in surveillance the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases (NCEZID), and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Another form of public health surveillance is disease registries, defined by the national Library of Medicine as “systems that allow people to collect, store, retrieve, analyze, and disseminate information about people with a specific disease or condition.” The data is kept by governments, hospitals, universities, nonprofits, and private groups, and the specific data collected relates to infectious diseases.

Applications of Data and Biostatistics in Public Health

In the hands of qualified individuals, data can be used to develop public health initiatives, identify barriers to care, and even influence public policy.

For instance, data can help evaluate a program’s impact by increasing rates of patients attending follow-up appointments after surgery, increasing immunization rates, and monitoring progress toward a specific health goal. Using data to create population-based interventions can identify populations that need interventions to reduce health disparities and identify regions at the  greatest risk of disease. Data can also identify certain barriers to care by providing insight on patient perceptions of care or why patients choose not to utilize a specific service. Finally, data can be used to influence public policy by demonstrating the need for or potential impact of a specific policy.

Combatting the Coronavirus, Ebola, and the Opioid Epidemic

The latest outbreak of COVID-19 has brought together the scientific community, health care professionals, and public health officials, all working toward stopping the spread of this highly infectious disease.

Curbing the Coronavirus (COVID-19)

According to the WHO, the global mortality rate for COVID-19 was 3.4% as of March 2020. To stop the spread of the coronavirus, the CDC has implemented strategies to screen incoming travelers at airports, operate quarantine stations for sick patients, track confirmed cases, track people in contact with confirmed cases, provide guidance to state and local health departments, and work with federal and state authorities to distribute diagnostic testing.

The CDC has also informed the public of best practices, such as frequent washing of hands and avoiding people who appear sick. Additionally, CDC laboratories are supporting the coronavirus response by developing a test to diagnose the virus and sending the cell-grown virus to the BEI Resources Repository for use by the broad scientific community.

Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health is conducting lab research to develop a vaccine and antiviral drugs. The WHO is also responding to the outbreak by bringing the scientific community together to identify critical areas of research, identifying knowledge gaps from existing SARS and MERS coronavirus research, and accelerating progress.

Fighting the Ebola Virus Disease (EBD)

The average EVD case fatality rate is about 50%, but rates ranged from 25% to 90% in past outbreaks since 1976. The Who has responded to Ebola outbreaks by supporting community engagement, contact tracing, vaccinations, laboratory service, and infection control.

Address the Opioid Epidemic

More than 115 Americans die of opioid overdose every day. To combat the opioid epidemic, CDC scientists work to examine the latest data on emergency department visits for opioid overdoses, integrating data from the CDC’s Enhanced State Opioid Overdose Surveillance Program and National Syndromic Surveillance Program, and publish findings to reveal quarterly trends and guide resource and response decisions locally and nationally.

Data for a Healthier Future

Health data contains valuable insights that can be used to save lives. The field of biostatistics, which involves using statistics to analyze health data, plays a critical role in informing and supporting public health initiatives, especially during national health emergencies. The future of public health will be influenced by insights gleaned by biostatisticians committed to protecting the health of local, national, and global populations.