Etiology vs. Epidemiology: Important Concepts in Nursing

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Nurse practitioner talking with patients

Etiology and epidemiology cover similar approaches to the study of diseases, but they’re distinct medical terms that shouldn’t be used interchangeably. While both fields offer valuable insight into diseases and the maintenance of health, each has an area of focus. Understanding the differences between etiology vs. epidemiology and how each is applied can help shape how a nursing student deals with real-world scenarios.

What Is Etiology?

Etiology in medicine is defined as the determination of a cause of disease or pathology. Its influence on the development of civilization can be traced back to several impressive findings, ranging from the germ theory of pathology to the modern understanding of the source of diseases and their control.

Etiology focuses on the backstory of a disease. Generally, the etiology of illness falls into one of three main categories, namely:

  • Intrinsic — coming from within
  • Extrinsic — originating from external factors
  • Idiopathic — cause unknown

Etiology is not only disease specific but also person specific. While a particular cause may lead to a disease manifesting in an individual, a similar set of factors could lead to a different illness being manifested in another individual.

What Is Epidemiology?

According to the World Health Organization, epidemiology is the study of the spread of disease and factors affecting states of health. Generally, epidemiology doesn’t just focus on illness; it primarily studies wellness and how to maintain it. In essence, it can be considered the basic science of public health. Epidemiology was initially coined in the mid-19th century to refer to the study of epidemics. Today, it’s applied to all factors affecting the health and wellness of a particular demographic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes the similarities between an epidemiologist and a detective. By collecting clues about the symptoms surrounding a disease, an epidemiologist can follow the trail to determine the root causes of a particular health problem. These clues come in the form of asking a handful of pertinent questions, such as the following:

  • Who is sick?
  • What symptoms does the person demonstrate?
  • When was it discovered that the person got sick?
  • What were the factors surrounding the person’s exposure?

Once these factors are determined, epidemiologists can make specific recommendations on minimizing the spread of a particular disease.

Etiology vs. Epidemiology: What Is Their Importance to Nurses?

Nurses are on the front line of disease outbreaks, so they need to understand the basics of epidemiology and etiology and apply them where necessary. The journal Family Practice explores the idea of primary care epidemiology, including prevention, diagnosis, and etiology of a disease as a significant benefit to all physicians having to deal with the outbreak. Nurses may be the first responders to a disease occurrence, and determining the etiology of the disease and its method of containment as fast as possible can be crucial to avoid its spread.

For students who are interested in becoming Doctors of Nursing Practice (DNPs), the Regis College MSN to DNP online program provides a solid foundation in the specific areas needed to apply etiology and epidemiology practically. Students who pursue this program have access to courses such as the following:

  • Epidemiology/Biostatistics — helping students to understand the basics of epidemiology and the application in real-world scenarios
  • Advanced Research Methods for EBP I — the implementation of evidence-based practice and how it applies to using factual information to determine etiology and epidemiology of an outbreak
  • Advanced Research Methods for EBP II — advanced application of evidence-based practice
  • Informatics in Healthcare — using data-driven solutions to better inform about the circumstances and potential spread of an outbreak

Nursing and Health Management

Nurse practitioners (NPs) should always ensure that their patients maintain their health. Their role is similar to that of an epidemiologist, in that they try to identify the key factors affecting it. Nurse researchers or nurse educators may find themselves more comparable to an etiologist. Hunting down information, sourcing similar cases, and determining the overall factors and causes are critical elements to the job of nurse researchers.

The American Nurses Association notes that nursing research aims to bring evidence-based care to patients — not merely individuals, but also communities as a whole. Nurse educators fill a similar role, in that they can leverage their understanding of etiology and epidemiology and their applications to advance the training of young nursing professionals.

Using Knowledge Practically

NPs, researchers, etiologists, and epidemiologists use evidence-based approaches in their quest for solutions. Students in the Regis College MSN to DNP online program can apply what they learn in a way that benefits their fellow human beings and helps them to be better at their chosen career path. The ultimate answer to the question of etiology vs. epidemiology is that nurses should be able to understand and apply the essential functions of both. Understanding those fields comes from having a strong education that offers a wide range of knowledge to use in the real world.

Recommended Reading
What Are Some of the Most Popular Advancement Opportunities for Nurses?
What Makes a Good Nurse? Key Skills for an Essential Profession
The Primary Care Provider Shortage: 2019 Update

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Who Are Epidemiologists?
New World Encyclopedia, Etiology
Oxford Academic, “Primary Care Epidemiology: Its Scope and Purpose”
World Health Organization, Epidemiology