Public health is a concept that affects everyone. Every type of communicable disease has the opportunity to spread between people, which can have a major impact on the health of individuals and the ability of local health care systems to respond.
Epidemiology is a subsect of the overall study of public health. It’s incredibly important for understanding how diseases emerge and spread, and how governments and organizations can appropriately respond to outbreaks.
Experts in this field are critical for understanding and curbing the spread of everything from the common cold to major health crises. A relevant example of this is the public health field’s reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic. Governments around the world turned to epidemiological research to learn how COVID-19 behaves and how to structure policies that keep people safe, according to Nature, an international scientific journal.
There are many epidemiology career paths that a person who earns a degree in public health may choose to take. Here are a few specific areas that can lead to rewarding careers in public health for those with a passion for epidemiology:
1. Molecular Epidemiology
Molecular epidemiology focuses on specific markers to understand the development and transmission of particular diseases. This discipline has evolved immensely over the past few decades, according to a report published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. Though the term dates back to 1973 from an article published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, mentions of this specialty became much more common in the 1990s.
Today, molecular epidemiology is an important aspect in the studies of HIV transmission, patterns of influenza, cancer research, and other specializations.
An epidemiologist working to study specific diseases at a molecular level can make informed suggestions about the patterns of transmission and growth. This evidence can then help local governments create health policy to curb the spread or prevalence of that disease.
Studying subjects related to this career path, such as molecular biology and genetics, can help prospective molecular epidemiologists excel in this field. Molecular epidemiologists may collaborate in multidisciplinary teams and join professional organizations such as the Molecular Epidemiology Working Group with the American Association of Cancer Research to help advance research in specific areas.
2. Chronic Disease Epidemiology
Chronic disease epidemiologists seek to uncover the causes and risk factors related to chronic diseases, and to discover ways to prevent them. These types of health concerns ― including cardiovascular disease, cancer, respiratory disease, and diabetes ― have become the leading causes of death and disability in the U.S., according to the CDC. As such, this discipline is increasingly important to protecting public health.
Increased focus on chronic disease epidemiology began taking off in the late 1980s when the CDC established the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Since then, the field has grown immensely, and new technologies have allowed medical scientists in this area to expand their knowledge about the causes and transmission of chronic diseases.
Today, professionals who pursue this epidemiology career perform surveillance to monitor the occurrence and spread of chronic diseases, as well as provide consultation services to health departments to help them address the prevalence of these health concerns in their communities.
The CDC’s State Chronic Disease Epidemiology Assignee Program, founded in 1991, has dispatched specialists to 36 states plus New York City over the years. These professionals have heightened awareness and understanding of chronic diseases in their respective areas. They’ve done this through data collection and interpretation, collaboration with leaders in state and local governments, and development of new approaches to manage public health problems.
While chronic disease epidemiology is an important subsector of the overall field of the study of disease, professionals must understand how this area relates to other specializations. For example, infectious disease epidemiology has broad overlaps with this concentration: Certain cancers originate from viruses, such as the relationship between human papillomavirus and cervical cancer, according to an article published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
Finding the connections between various specializations can help epidemiologists better understand patterns in disease, and establish more focused prevention and intervention methods.
3. Infectious Disease Epidemiology
Epidemiologists who specialize in infectious diseases study the way viruses and other agents spread. They aim to uncover the relationships between pathogens, hosts, and their environments.
A critical aspect of the work infectious disease epidemiologists do is exploring ways to react to and contain viral outbreaks, explained Arjun Srinivasan of the CDC, writing in the Journal of Infectious Diseases.
Pursuing a career studying infectious diseases also entails behind-the-scenes work. For example, an infectious disease epidemiologist analyzes data to learn more about risk factors regarding diseases. They also investigate how effective interventions designed to contain outbreaks really are.
“During my career, I’ve been able to share new information and educate providers, patients, and policymakers on best practices through peer-reviewed publications, as well as media interviews and presentations in a host of different venues,” Srinivasan wrote.
Infectious disease epidemiologists may work with governments and organizations of all sizes, from large entities like the CDC to smaller agencies such as municipal health departments. Infectious disease experts are the most common epidemiological specialists employed by state and local health departments, according to a survey conducted by the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists.
Infectious disease epidemiologists need to carefully consider what makes a disease communicable. Certain illnesses, such as influenza, spread from person to person virally. Other health concerns such as respiratory illnesses and cardiovascular disease are largely caused by behavioral habits. However, these patterns are, in many ways, transferable from one population to another, especially in an era of global connection, a Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health article noted.
Critical thinking and problem-solving skills allow epidemiologists to think outside the box to learn more about how chronic and infectious diseases relate, and establish effective measures to prevent and reduce health concerns across communities.
4. Veterinary Epidemiology
Veterinary epidemiologists focus specifically on disease control and outbreak management as it pertains to animal populations. Professionals in this field are typically concerned with disease risks that affect animals that produce food or other products, as well as the potential for those diseases to impact humans.
This career path is relevant in today’s world, as multiple epidemics have emerged due to cross-species transmission of diseases, Public Health Online pointed out. Examples of this phenomenon include swine influenza and avian influenza.
To become a veterinary epidemiologist, one should study both veterinary science and public health. Earning a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine is a common starting point, along with board certification from the American College of Veterinary Preventive Medicine. Pursuing a master’s degree in public health also provides essential information and skills to pursue this epidemiology career path.
The U.S. Food & Drug Administration employs veterinary epidemiologists to study diseases impacting livestock populations and their risk to public health. Other organizations that hire professionals with this specialty include academic institutions, research laboratories, and pharmaceutical companies, according to The Balance Careers.
5. Pharmaceutical Epidemiology
Epidemiology plays an important role in the creation of medications and other pharmaceutical products. In the development of new treatments, it is essential to understand the nuances of the disease being treated as well as the risk factors associated with emerging medications. Both of these key points are directly related to the field of epidemiology.
Bringing epidemiological methods into the pharmaceutical industry began in the 1980s as a way to expand upon efficacy studies conducted by way of randomized trials, according to an article published in Pharmacoepidemiology & Drug Safety. Introducing epidemiology to this field allowed manufacturers to take a broader view of their treatments, allowing them to better understand:
- The specifics of the disease they’re working to treat
- Short-term and long-term effects of the medication
- Real-world implications of the drug, including cost effectiveness
Since the 1980s, it has become common to bring epidemiology expertise into the drug manufacturing and marketing processes. A survey published in Pharmacoepidemiology & Drug Safety showed that, of 75 responding companies involved in pharmaceutical research and development, about 42% either have epidemiologists on staff or contract with external epidemiologists. One in five companies have departments dedicated to this area of research.
There are numerous considerations that pharmacoepidemiology experts need to make. One of the primary areas of focus for these specialists is the risk of addiction and abuse of a particular drug, according to Careers in Public Health.
Additionally, epidemiologists can uncover health information regarding why certain conditions occur, their history, and common outcomes. With this information, pharmaceutical manufacturers can better provide helpful recommendations about how to regulate certain drugs.
Pharmaceutical manufacturers are typically private companies that need to have insight into the effects of their products from a business perspective. Epidemiologists contribute information about the disease they’re treating, the populations that are most prone to contracting it, and the effects of the medication. All of this information provides business value, an article published in the International Journal of Epidemiology pointed out.
6. Local Epidemiology
In many states, local health departments are responsible for controlling the spread of communicable diseases throughout their communities, according to Public Health Reports. To effectively do so, local epidemiologists are essential team members in these departments.
About 89% of local health departments carry out epidemiologic surveillance to identify infectious or communicable disease threats to their communities. However, not all employ a dedicated expert in this field.
A survey conducted by the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists found that, of the 3,754 epidemiologists employed by state and local health departments, one-third work at the local level. Health departments serving populations of 100,000 or more are most likely to have a dedicated epidemiologist on staff, but communities of any size could benefit from the guidance of an expert in this area of study.
Pursuing a Career in Epidemiology
Epidemiology is a complex field with rewarding outcomes. There are many paths one can take with an epidemiology career. No matter which direction an expert in this field chooses, they will have the opportunity to effect change and promote positive public health.
To learn more about pursuing an epidemiology career with a Master of Public Health, connect with Regis College.
Incomplete overlapping of biological, clinical, and environmental information in molecular epidemiological studies: a variety of causes and a cascade of consequences – Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health